By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 12:18 AM
RALEIGH, N.C. - The parking lots around RBC Center filled with tailgaters more than five hours before the NHL All-Star Game was slated to begin. It's what fans of the Carolina Hurricanes - Caniacs, as they call themselves - might be known best for in putting their distinct Southern spin on hockey.
On this balmy day they played street hockey between parked cars, held signs that read "Honk if you cheer for Team Staal" and once inside the arena gave standing ovations to the current and former Hurricanes on the ice for the opening ceremony. Team Lidstrom, led by Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, defeated Team Staal, captained by Carolina's Eric Staal, 11-10, on Sunday to conclude a successful weekend here in a non-traditional hockey market.
Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp recorded a goal and two assists to earn the game's MVP award. Washington Capitals representatives Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green each recorded two points for Team Staal in a free-flowing game that followed the traditional all-star mold of little defense, with a total of 91 shots being taken.
"I like it - lots of offense with no defense," said Ovechkin, who, like Green, commemorated the event by walking around the dressing room to have his all-star teammates sign his jersey. "I think the Hurricanes do an unbelievable job. We have a fun time. . . . You can see it's sold out and everybody's pretty happy, fans was really loud. The team's fans was here and it was pretty special."
Ovechkin scored the first goal of the contest - just 50 seconds in - and also made history in an unusual fashion when he threw his stick to prevent a scoring chance for Team Lidstrom's Matt Duchene, causing the first-ever all-star penalty shot. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist stopped Duchene's attempt early in the third period.
"Well, I want to be in history, so now I'm in history," Ovechkin joked.
The game's setting was familiar for Ovechkin and Green, as the Capitals travel to North Carolina three times a year - Green was also selected in the NHL draft held here in 2004 - but the environment and seeing the city excited for the contest stood out.
"The support for hockey has grown a lot," Green, a first-time all-star, said of playing in Raleigh. "And it may not be a traditional hockey town, but there's a market here for it, as you can tell with all the fans and the attention this weekend and with the events they've put on. It's been great."
In the midst of their 13th season since relocating from Hartford, Conn., the Hurricanes showed on one of the NHL's biggest regular season stages how it is possible to grow the sport in an unconventional market.
It's a gradual process, one helped in North Carolina by the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup championship in 2006 and repeated trips deep into the playoffs. While those results helped galvanize the fan base, the positive reaction and genuine excitement surrounding Sunday's All-Star Game in the Triangle region is a positive sign.
"I think it's good for everybody else to see that in a non-traditional hockey market you can have this kind of buzz," said Bill Daly, deputy commissioner for the NHL. "Individual successes, profits and losses change over time, and it often depends on a team's experience and success in the playoffs to a large extent. But to a large extent this area has embraced hockey. That's what we want to do, plant those seeds around the United States and grow hockey."
While the festivities in Raleigh are a bright spot for the NHL, the league is not without uncertainty in other cities. Chief among the franchises in flux is another Southeast Division squad. The Atlanta Thrashers' ownership group filed a lawsuit last Friday against a law firm used in the buyout of a former partner, claiming its negligence cost the franchise millions of dollars. The Thrashers, who are up for sale and rumored to potentially relocate, have $130 million in operating losses and lost $50 million in value since 2005, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Then there's the league-controlled Phoenix Coyotes, who are still working through a sale process that would allow them to stay in Arizona, despite reports to the contrary, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Saturday.
The Dallas Stars are also involved in a complicated search for a buyer after their ownership group defaulted on loan payments. Bettman said the search is continuing in an orderly manner and that the league will not assume control of the team.
But for a few days, the NHL was able to accentuate the positive in putting one of its newer groundswells of support on display in Raleigh.
"I think it was great for the players and the fans from out of town that came in to be able to see how hockey is down here in the South," Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward said. "And I think they're going to go home with a different perspective on Raleigh and the game in itself because it was just a party at that, and entertainment."