The epic tailgates. The car flags flying. The fans at the airport in the middle of the night. And the noise. Oh, man, that noise.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the past 10 years has been seeing players come, play here, and go, without ever experiencing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in North Carolina. We'd tell them what it was like. They'd listen and smile and nod. But they never really understood, because they never got to experience them.
The same is true for so many of our fans. Veteran Caniacs can explain to newer or younger fans how different the playoffs are than the regular season. But you don't really and truly know until you're leaving the arena on Edwards Mill Road, your voice long gone and your ears still ringing.
Between Carter-Finley Stadium and PNC Arena, a patch of mulch was once dubbed "Kelly's Island." There, on 14 spectacular days in the spring of 2006, then-Hockey Operations Event Coordinator Kelly Kirwin set up her tailgate before each Hurricanes home playoff game.
About 75 minutes prior to faceoff for each of those games, Kyle Hanlin (at the time the Hurricanes' manager of media relations) and I would stroll out into the RBC Center parking lots to soak in the atmosphere. We'd see the tents and the flags and the kids playing street hockey. We'd hear Springsteen's The Rising blaring from car speakers, the same song that would play as the team came onto the ice for warmups. We'd smell the smoke rising from grills and barbecue pits.
Ultimately, we would end up at Kelly's Island, so we too could cherish those moments with co-workers, friends and family before returning to work. A few months later, Kelly's name would be one of 52 etched into silver with the 2005-06 Stanley Cup champions.
Almost every morning for the past month, my oldest son has woken up and asked me whether the Hurricanes won last night, and whether that means they are in the playoffs. You see, he turns 10 this year. He's in the fourth grade. But he's never witnessed a Hurricanes playoff game, born two weeks after the team was eliminated in the 2009 Eastern Conference Final.
This morning, I got to tell him. Yes, the Hurricanes have earned a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They earned it with a rookie head coach, whose leadership brought together a team featuring 12 players who weren't here at the end of last season. They earned it with a pair of goaltenders cast away by other teams, but determined to prove themselves. They earned it with players nearly two years younger on average than Carolina's last playoff team in 2009. They earned it while sharing their post-game joy with a fanbase starving for it, no matter what others said about them.
They earned it.
So, fly your Hurricanes flags. Start "let's go Canes" chants in your neighborhood. Grab your beverage of choice. Visit RDU late at night. Cook dinner over an open flame. Yell your head off. Enjoy this, because you deserve to. We all do.
See y'all in the parking lot.