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If Rod Brind’Amour still had any lingering doubts as to hockey’s place in Raleigh, they would be erased from his mind and many others around the league two years later.
In the spring of 2002, the Hurricanes had their first deep playoff run both in North Carolina and in the history of the franchise, having never advanced past the second round in 22 years of existence. Their first-round victory over the New Jersey Devils that season marked just the second time they had ever won a playoff series, the first coming when the Hartford Whalers defeated the Quebec Nordiques in 1986. They would go on to win two more match-ups in ‘02, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
For Brind’Amour, that unprecedented success was the first big step the organization took towards legitimizing itself as a competitive team and a competitive NHL market.
“That was a huge spark that put us on the map and showed we could compete with the big boys,” he said. “We were this ‘little engine that could’ kind of thing, and having that successful season and playoff run got this community pumped about hockey and about the Hurricanes.”
For original six opponents in Montreal, Toronto and Detroit, the youngest of which was founded in 1926, the run also marked the first glimpse into a new way of doing things.
“It was as loud as any place I’ve ever been to with the party atmosphere and the way they tailgated,” recalled Brind’Amour. “All that stuff kind of started happening - it’s all unique to what this organization is about and what they do. You don’t see that other places.
“It kind of started its own little tradition of how it’s done. The other franchises have their tradition, but it’s the way we do it. I think that’s special.”
The fact that no one expected the Hurricanes to make such a dent in the postseason made the run even more captivating. They entered the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed by way of their Southeast Division championship, but were essentially the No. 7 seed according to their actual record.
The Hurricanes had plenty of good players on that team, but not the superstar talent that they’d face elsewhere. Brind’Amour posted 12 points in the 23 game run – a total that seems modest but was just 4 points back of Ron Francis’ team-leading 16. What that team lacked in firepower they made up for in leadership, with Brind’Amour, Ron Francis and Glen Wesley – the only three Hurricanes to have their numbers retired by the team – all on the same team and all wearing letters on their jerseys.
“That was the only way we were going to be successful,” said Brind’Amour. “We couldn’t compete with the big teams when you look at the roster we had versus the other teams we were playing. The only way we were going to have any success was doing it the right way, and that’s what we did that year.”
No image better captures the driving force of that team than the photo of the three captains with the Prince of Wales Trophy they received upon beating Toronto in the Conference Finals. Almost 10 years later, it’s now seen as a key moment in the scrapbook that makes up the organization’s history.
”They all look so young,” said coach Paul Maurice. “It’s on the wall in the meal room, and every time I see it I think, ‘It can’t possibly have been that long ago.’”
“I park my car next to that picture every morning,” said General Manager Jim Rutherford, referring to the image that adorns the south side of the RBC Center. “Quite frankly, it was Brind’Amour, Francis and Wesley that had to take leadership roles for us to get there.”
The memories aren’t all happy ones, as the Hurricanes lost the Stanley Cup in five games to Detroit. Having also reached the finals in 1997 with the Philadelphia Flyers only to make an even quicker exit against the Red Wings, the feeling was all too familiar to Brind’Amour.
“Same result from the same team,” he said. “Detroit was a thorn in my side. It wasn’t a good ending to a great experience, but it ended up making winning so much better.”
It would take the Hurricanes four more years to make a deep run – one that resulted in the ultimate goal for any team – but those involved now look to 2002 as a necessary first step.
“It changed the expectations,” said Maurice. “Before anybody starts winning, they’ve got to believe that they will and believe that they can. When guys like Rod Brind’Amour came in, they brought some belief in the locker room.”