CHARLOTTE - Cowbells clanked in the parking lot long before the doors to Bojangles' Coliseum opened on a balmy, sunny June afternoon.
Grills dotted jubilant parking lot tailgates, the smells of freshly seared hamburgers and hot dogs wafting through the springtime air.
Once inside the Coliseum, a line for Charlotte Checkers merchandise snaked around the concourse. Hamilton the Pig's wagon journey to his rinkside home was a stop-and-go affair, as fans posed for pictures with the good-luck swine.
Settling into their seats, fans who had dressed for the warmer temperatures out on the blacktop donned the traditional hockey garb of a sweater, much more appropriate for the cooler indoor climate of the rink. Greazy Keyz serenaded the early arrivers with an eclectic collection of tunes played on a vintage Hammond C3 organ. You might have also spotted the Checkers' organist rocking out with a keytar during a stoppage in play.
The cowbell clanking only intensified, as 17,023 total fans - including a Coliseum record of 8,465 in Game 1 - packed the historic building for the opening weekend of the Calder Cup Finals.
Ahh, hockey in June in North Carolina.
"The crowd in Charlotte have been outstanding," head coach Mike Vellucci said. "The enthusiasm before the games and in warm-ups is great. The coolest thing to me is this old-school [building] with great acoustics, it's very, very loud."
Situated in a crow's nest above the last handful of rows in section 109 sits (or stands, when game action is happening) Checkers radio play-by-play voice Jason Shaya, typically a one-man show - quite literally, as he calls the game, operates the sound board and plays the commercials. Yes, he's cueing those up, as well. A folder of commercials sits on the desktop of his laptop. Shaya keeps a close eye on the blue timeline indicator of Windows Media Player. As a commercial nears completion, he readies the next file. And, play. In a flash, he's back on the air.
It's a similar routine for Shaya's pregame and intermission shows: press play on a playlist he's put together prior to the game, tightly edited to fit in the allotted air time.
Recently, that one-man show grew by a body, as Shaya is joined by Checkers forward Zack Stortini, who offers color commentary.
"I have a lot of fun up here," Stortini smiled. "The research that he does, the work that he puts into his job, his ability to annunciate players' names - I have a hard time saying some of these guys' names that are on my own team. He's an incredible guy to learn from and work with. I'm so lucky to have the opportunity for him to ask me to come up here and call the game with him. It's been a lot of fun and a great ride so far."
As it appeared the Checkers might connect on a rebound chance in Game 2, Stortini tensed up in anticipation. The game plays differently from high above where you can see plays develop before you might in the rush of the game at ice level.
READ: CHECKERS WIN GAME 2 TO EVEN CALDER CUP FINALS
"You always learn. You're always a student of the game," Stortini said. "Whether you are talking about it, sitting there taking notes or just watching, you're always looking for ways to get better and improve as a player or a person in hockey."
In a particularly long stretch of whistle-less, commercial-less action, Shaya motioned to Stortini while he reached over to grab a quick swig of water.
"The amount of work that goes into putting together a broadcast like he does. You know it's not easy," Stortini said. "Listening to his show, you would never know the amount of work that goes into producing it. He's a master at it. It's been a lot of fun."
"I've got a fever! And the only prescription is more cowbell." The classic Saturday Night Live sketch clip featuring the classic cadence of Christopher Walken is a staple at Checkers games. The crowd abided with more cowbell as the opening riffs of The Darkness' "One Way Ticket" blared over the sound system.
"He shoots!" public address voice Brian Stickley shouted, in preparation to announce the latest Checkers' goal. "He scores!" the sold-out crowd responded in unison.
This boisterous, interactive fan support is nothing new in Charlotte, but it's only blossomed as the Checkers and Carolina Hurricanes have made deep playoff runs.
"I don't think you have enough room on that tape recorder for me to explain that one. It's been incredible here. The fans here in Charlotte are awesome, just awesome. We get so much great support from them each and every night," Stortini said. "The building is full tonight, and I feel like I've been yelling all this time just to try to get over that crowd noise. The atmosphere here is incredible."
"Incredible. It's been crazy loud," Patrick Brown said, noting the energy in the building after the team's double overtime victory over Toronto in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. "That's the loudest I think I've ever heard it in this building. It was pretty fun."
The atmosphere during the first two games of the Calder Cup Finals didn't disappoint, either.
"I couldn't be more proud of Charlotte and our fans. They really came to support. They were loud," Vellucci said after Game 2. "It was awesome. I'm very proud to be able to coach a team in Charlotte."
As fans filed out of Bojangles' Coliseum following a 5-3 Checkers win in Game 2, a din of wooing echoed through the concourse.
There were cowbells, too, and perhaps the hope that they'd get to do it all over again in a couple of weeks.