Imagine getting to don the familiar red and white of the Carolina Hurricanes and skate out onto an NHL ice surface. Imagine taking a pass from someone with 1,249 career NHL assists. Imagine scoring a hat trick in front of thousands of fans and getting fist bumps from guys who have logged over 1,000 career NHL games.
Those dreams became realities for the more than 20 paying participants in the third annual Canes Alumni Fantasy Game, held Sunday afternoon in front of around 3,000 fans at PNC Arena. Though the score may be rather meaningless in the grander scheme of things, Team White topped Team Red 7-6 in a closely contested, back-and-forth match. The event raised over $61,000 for the Kids ‘N Community Foundation, surpassing the fundraising efforts set last year, and all of funds collected will be given back to the community through grants to various deserving non-profits.
“This is exactly my birthday present,” said first-time participant Timothy Giambra, who will turn 50 years of age in six weeks. “To have fun, play hockey and help charity, you can’t beat it.”
“It’s a great give-back,” former Canes defenseman and current TSN analyst Aaron Ward said. “We enjoy it as much as they do.”
Since its inception three years ago, the Alumni Fantasy experience has continued to grow. Last year’s weekend saw the addition of a team practice.
This year, the weekend began even earlier with a Friday night roster reveal party held at Bates Battaglia’s downtown bar, Lucky B’s.
“They had us put the jersey on and sign the paper like we were being picked by a team in the draft, so that was a fun experience,” two-time participant Geoffrey Allen said.
The experience continued on Saturday, as the participants absorbed the Hurricanes’ morning skate before taking the very same ice for a practice of their own. The night was capped off as the group watched the Canes battle New Jersey in a 3-1 loss.
“Getting to watch the Canes practice was kind of neat. I heard Khudobin was asking, ‘Who are all these people watching?’ Someone said he might have stayed after to watch us for a little bit, but he probably saw how slow we were and left,” Allen said. “[Our practice] gives you an idea of everyone’s play out here. You get to meet all the guys, and it gives you time to really get to know the players before the game, which is cool.”
The main event – the game itself, complete with warm-ups, player introductions and a true gameday experience – took place on Sunday afternoon. Afterward, sticks, jerseys and nameplates were being rotated around the locker room for signatures, a memento of the weekend that was.
“These are the hockey fans. They’re in your community,” Ward said. “I sat beside a guy I didn’t even know, and his wife teaches my kid.”
Chip Miller, a first-time participant who lives in Cary and works for a multi-national pharmaceutical manufacturer, dressed next to Rod Brind’Amour in the locker room.
“I’m still getting my head around that and the pictures I took,” he said with an invaluable smile. “The magic and the contribution that they’ve made to the community here has really impassioned thousands of Caniacs, and I’m just one of them.”
The Alumni Game, ultimately, was just a friendly scrimmage. But that didn’t stop Brind’Amour and Bret Hedican, who was skating in his first match as an alumnus, from crushing a postgame work-out.
“That was old time’s sake, man. Isn’t that great?” Hedican said. “I’ll never forget Game 7. We beat the Buffalo Sabres in this building to go to the Stanley Cup. We were the only two in this locker room after the game working out. And I just remember – matter of fact it was right here on this spot – we went and looked at each other and said, ‘This is our moment. We’re going after it, and we’re going to get it done.’ It still brings chills to me thinking about that.”
Though it hasn’t featured the exact same roster each year, Team White emerged victorious for the third straight time, edging out Team Red, 7-6, in what was a back-and-forth affair, especially in the final 20 minutes.
And the game had it all. Hat tricks for Allen and Miller. A “tussle” off the faceoff, as the Scoggins boys displayed brotherly love and hugged it out. A general body injury that Tripp Tracy played his way through in the third period. A video review from “two guys in a Bojangles’ in Holly Springs,” according to John Forslund, who called the event live. An all-alumni shift. (“It’s a good reminder that we can’t do it anymore,” Ward said. “That was one shift. You’re supposed to have 18 consecutive of those in a game.”) And Giambra’s green pants that were instantly recognizable. (“People think they’re a tribute to Hartford, but they were really just on sale when I went to buy them,” Giambra said.)
As far as scoring in the game, Team White jumped out to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, which then ballooned to a 3-1 advantage in the second. Team Red would even the score at three after 40 minutes.
Then, it opened up.
“You can always see the pace pick up once one team starts getting behind, and then the guys that did it for a living, the competitive juices start to flow,” Ward said.
Miller, 49, poked in a loose puck in the slot for his third goal, and Allen, 24, broke in on a rush and scored for his hat trick.
“The third goal was pretty cool,” Allen, who works in the insurance industry, said. “Just for anyone out here – alumni or especially the people that play – scoring a goal and having the siren go off and the crowd cheer is kind of neat because most of us who play in the adult league or youth hockey, you don’t get those cheers.”
“The Canes were what instilled the passion for hockey in me,” Miller said. “I’ve been playing for quite a while, and I didn’t grow up playing. Being from southern Ohio, we didn’t have a lot of hockey.”
Jesse Boulerice netted his second goal of the game to break a 6-6 tie in the third period and give Team White the 7-6 victory.
But the score isn’t what’s most memorable.
It’s the goals.
“Scoring a goal. Nothing like it. With the horn going and my teammates surrounding me, it was surreal,” Giambra said. “[I’ll remember it] for the rest of my life.”
It’s the chance to brush shoulders with some of the game’s greats.
“[I participated because of] a lifelong love of hockey, in general,” Giambra said. “I think there are very few cities where you’re able to do this and get the access to the players. It’s just fun, it’s a blast.”
“For any Joe out there who wants to play with a professional hockey player and see what it’s like, it’s got to be a great experience for them,” Hedican said. “You play with or against guys that you watched on TV and saw raise a Stanley Cup or whatever it might have been. To be able to do that is probably just a thrill.”
It’s the experience all together.
“I might have to do it every year now,” Giambra said. “It’s just a lot of fun. Too much fun.”
“It’s just an awesome experience,” Allen said. “It’s worth coming out, and it’s worth it for what they do for the Kids ‘N Community Foundation.”
For the alumni, reuniting with old teammates recalls fond memories.
“It’s great. I miss Raleigh, and I miss the people. Every guy in this room – the trainers to the ex-players – when I see them, it puts a smile on my face because of the memories and teams we had here,” Hedican said. “For us, it’s still fun beating out your old teammate out there. It still puts a smile on your face.”
For the paying participants who give back to the community, they get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to live out a dream, even if only for a day.
“What made it most special was that I had people like Brind’Amour out on the ice, people I’ve looked up to for a long, long time, and my daughter, who is a Jr. Hurricane, was in the second row and witnessed the whole thing,” Miller said. “Put those two together and it makes today incredibly special.”