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Sunday Long Read

Hurricanes embrace fun, victory celebrations, hope rebuild soon pays off

Young group out to entertain fans, 'get creative with it,' end nine-year playoff drought

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Carolina Hurricanes are simply trying to have a little fun.

They know as well as anyone that there hasn't been enough of that at PNC Arena since they last qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2008-09, so they decided to do something a bit different after their home wins this season.

Instead of the traditional raised-stick salute to their fans, the Hurricanes gather at center ice and lead the crowd in a thunderous clap over their heads that builds into a group celebration. The "Storm Surge" celebrations have evolved over first two months of the season from the players leaping into the boards to paddling imaginary kayaks to riding their sticks to toppling like dominoes.

The fans have embraced these celebrations, waiting in the stands after the final horn to see what they'll do next. But some critics -- former NHL executive and current Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke has been the most vocal -- have called the celebrations unprofessional and disrespectful.

The Hurricanes weren't looking to stir up controversy, but they have no plans to stop.

"Listen, people are going to have opinions on everything and they're not all going to be the same," captain Justin Williams said. "That's what makes us human. That's what makes us unique. But I certainly don't see anything wrong with it. I see it as a fun time to interact with us and our fans, and we're actually kind of enjoying it ourselves.

"We're going to get creative with it. Regardless of what anyone says, we're having fun with it. And who the heck cares?"

Coach Rod Brind'Amour doesn't. While trying to establish a hard-working identity in his first season as coach, Brind'Amour doesn't want to dampen Carolina's youthful exuberance.

With an average age of 25 years, 243 days on opening night, the Hurricanes began the season as the third-youngest team in the NHL behind the Columbus Blue Jackets (25 years, 24 days) and Winnipeg Jets (25 years, 90 days). So why not let them act their age a little?

"We don't want it to be a grind," said Brind'Amour, 48. "We already grind the [stuff] out of them during the game, in practices, everything we do. So, you've got to have fun with it, too."

Of course, winning is the best way to do that, and, the Hurricanes know that's ultimately how they'll judged. That part remains a work in progress.

They're 12-9-4, including 7-4-3 at home, heading into a three-game California trip that begins at the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday (10:30 p.m. ET; FS-W, FS-CR, NHL.TV). But they figure that if they can show some personality along the way it might help reignite a market starved for a winner.

"That's our plan," said center Sebastian Aho, Carolina's budding 21-year-old star. "We want to have fun and not think about hockey when it's that time. But when it's game time or practice time, then we want to go 100 percent every time."

Video: Mike Maniscalco talks Hurricanes goaltending, Ferland

***

In the reception area of the Hurricanes offices at PNC Arena is a mural of photos of memorable moments and players from their 21 seasons in Carolina. At the center of it is a photo of Brind'Amour lifting the Stanley Cup.

From being captain of the 2006 team that defeated the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Final to coaching this one, Brind'Amour is again at the center of the Hurricanes' universe. He's as invested in their rebuild paying off as anyone because he's been here through all of it.

Following his retirement in 2010, he joined Carolina's staff as a development coach for two seasons and an assistant for seven before replacing Bill Peters as coach May 8. A no-nonsense coach who was a no-nonsense player, he hopes to instill the same work ethic and attention to detail that helped him finish with 1,184 points (452 goals, 732 assists) and twice win the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward during his 20-season NHL career with the St. Louis Blues, Philadelphia Flyers and Hurricanes.

The results have been mixed. After a promising 4-0-1 start, the Hurricanes went 2-7-1 in their next 10 games, including five straight losses (0-4-1) from Oct. 28 to Nov. 6. They've shown improvement since then, going 6-2-2 in their past 10 games, and are in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division. With the exception of lackluster performances in 4-1 losses to Columbus on Nov. 17 and the New York Islanders on Nov. 24, Brind'Amour has been pleased with the effort.

"We work hard. We demand it," Brind'Amour said. "We know if we don't, we're no good compared to the teams we're playing. They're more talented than us. We know to be able to play with them we have to be competitive and I think for the most part we've got everyone dialed in on that."

Williams, who also played for the 2006 Cup team, had been away from the Hurricanes for more than eight years before he signed a two-year contract with them July 1, 2017. The 37-year-old returned as a proven winner and one of the most respected players in the NHL.

After being traded to the Los Angeles Kings on March 5, 2009, Williams helped the Kings win the Cup in 2012 and 2014, when he also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. Then he signed with the Washington Capitals and helped them win the Presidents' Trophy for having the most points in the NHL in 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Williams likens his return to Carolina to coming back to help an old friend in need. In his 18th NHL season and the final year of his contract, he doesn't know his future beyond this one, but believes he can make a difference for however long he's here.

General manager Don Waddell hinted that Williams might join the Hurricanes staff in some capacity after he retires, whenever that is. Williams isn't ready to talk about that.

"I'm just enjoying my time now and I'm going to make a decision on future time when I have to make that decision," Williams said. "Right now, I'm focusing on trying to be an impact player for this team, trying to be a guy that doesn't fade off into the sunset, a guy who eventually at some point will go out on my own terms and be productive as long as I can."

Though Williams is on an expiring contract, Brind'Amour said he was the no-brainer choice to be captain when the Hurricanes decided to end last season's experiment of having Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk as co-captains. (They're alternate captains this season.)

"You need a leader that's been there when you have a young group," Brind'Amour said. "I remember being an 18-year-old in the locker room and you're looking at all these older guys and the ones that have been there and done it and have had success. It's just easy to be like, 'OK, just follow that. He's done it. He's got a Cup. He's done everything you can do. Why would I not follow what that guy does?'"

Video: VAN@CAR: Hurricanes continue new postgame tradition

***

Williams is the Hurricanes' oldest player, but their young-and-fun personality is as much a reflection of his temperament as it is of a roster that includes 14 players who are 25 or younger. In a video Carolina posted on its Twitter account before Halloween, Williams donned a clown mask and jumped out of various hiding places to scare his teammates on their way to the locker room.

And though Williams downplays his role in it, his teammates say the Storm Surge celebrations were his idea.

"That came from [Williams], but I think all of us enjoy it," said rookie forward Warren Foegele, 22. "For the most part, it's for the fans, getting them engaged and seeing their faces on the glass, how excited they get."

Since becoming the Hurricanes majority owner on Jan. 11, Tom Dundon has encouraged the players to do more to help connect with the fans, so he's enjoyed watching the celebrations. 

He actually missed the first one -- a leap into the end boards following the first home win of the season, an 8-5 victory against the New York Rangers on Oct. 7 -- because he didn't know it was coming and left his seat when the game ended.

"We've probably asked a little more of the players in terms of interacting with the community and they've been great about it," Dundon said. "Then they came up with this, so I'm really appreciative that they realized we're in the entertainment business and the fans are the most important part of the game. It looks like the players are enjoying it, but the genesis was to do something for our fans."

When it was Aho's turn to lead the Storm Surge after he scored in overtime for a 3-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 12, he looked to Williams for direction. That night, the Hurricanes went with a more subdued leap into the boards.

"That's [Williams'] thing," Aho said. "He let me know what to do. I was cool with that, and it's fun to change it once in a while."

Williams said the Hurricanes usually discuss before the game what they're going to do if they win. "You don't want to look like idiots out there, every guy doing a different thing," he said. "I think it's just whatever we're feeling. We have a few options and we pick one and we'll go for it after the game."

The fun can be contagious. Usually reserved defenseman Dougie Hamilton seemed to get caught up in it after Carolina rallied for a 4-3 shootout win against the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 26. 

When the 25-year-old was introduced as the game's second star, he did the floss dance, swiveling his hips and swinging his arms back and forth across his body, while grinning sheepishly. The dance is featured in the popular video game Fortnite (created by Epic Games, whose headquarters are in nearby Cary, North Carolina), but Hamilton claimed not to know why he did it.

Whatever his inspiration, Hamilton clearly is embracing the Hurricanes' fun-loving attitude.

"It's a young team," said Hamilton, who was acquired in a trade with the Calgary Flames on June 23. "We're trying to have fun and enjoy every day of playing in the NHL. I think we have a good balance with having fun and working hard on the ice."

Video: SJS@CAR: Hamilton entertains fans with floss dance

***

On the morning after the overtime win against Chicago, the Hurricanes boarded a bus at PNC Arena for a bonding trip to Fort Bragg, home of more than 50,000 active-duty U.S. Army personnel. 

From the start of training camp, the Hurricanes have been focused on coming together and building chemistry. In a way, the group celebrations have been a manifestation of that.

Some of that bonding occurs naturally during practices, games and down time in the locker room. But getting away from hockey on a trip like this one can help.

"I feel like it's important," Aho said. "Obviously, the games are the most important, but to get to know each other better and just hang out together, you start to care about your teammates."

During a season filled with ups and downs, Brind'Amour also hoped the trip, held two days after Veterans Day, would provide his young team with perspective.

"We throw words around a lot about sacrifice and courage, and yet it pales in comparison to what these guys are giving up," Brind'Amour said. "In our everyday lives, you worry about if we lose a couple in a row. Then, you start thinking, 'Is it really that big of a deal?'" 

The visit began with lunch with the soldiers and some Gold Star family members at the 82nd Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade Dining Facility. If the Hurricanes looked a bit out of place while waiting in line for their chow with the camouflage-clad soldiers, that didn't stop rookie forward Andrei Svechnikov and defenseman Brett Pesce from sitting down with five of them in the main mess area.

The laughs coming from the table made it sound like they were lifelong friends.

"We were just talking about what it's like to live there," said Svechnikov, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. At 18, he is Carolina's youngest player. "I asked them, 'What do you guys do here? Do you have the internet? Do you watch TV?' They told me they have those things."

Most of the rest of the team dined in a private room with Gold Star family members Emily Piotrowski, and Whitney and Mark Hunter. Piotrowski's husband, Spc. Joshua Piotrowski, died in an automobile accident June 10, 2017. Whitney Hunter's husband, and Mark's son, Sgt. Jonathan Hunter, was killed in Afghanistan when his convoy was struck by an improvised explosive device Aug. 2, 2017.

"If they appreciate us coming to say hi, that's such a small thing for us to do," Williams said. "They've lost and sacrificed so much. Any day you can try to brighten is beneficial."

The Hurricanes' original plan for after lunch was to run the obstacle course used in training by the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operation Forces based at Fort Bragg. That was canceled because of rain, so they headed to the Fort Bragg Training Support Center, an indoor facility where they participated in some virtual reality combat simulations.

There were some laughs while they learned to use M4 carbine rifles, M249 light machine guns (Svechnikov struggled with his initially), and 9 mm pistols. There were also some sobering moments, such as seeing how to properly apply a tourniquet to a trauma mannequin's amputated limb.

At the end of the day, the Hurricanes returned home with a greater appreciation for those whose lives depend on such training, and a better appreciation for each other. The bus ride contributed to that, too. 

"It's just some more time to spend with each other," Williams said. "We learn a little bit about everyone every day that you're here. That's what we're trying to do. It's not necessarily where we're going. It's who we're going with."

***

Where Carolina is going this season remains to be seen. The goal is to end a nine-season playoff drought, but the Hurricanes know they have their work cut out for them in a competitive Metropolitan and Eastern Conference. 

Though their defensemen, anchored by Jaccob Slavin, Calvin de Haan, Faulk, Hamilton and Pesce (sidelined with a lower-body injury), are strong, their goaltending had been a question mark before Curtis McElhinney's emergence as their apparent No. 1 over the past two weeks.

Scoring also remains an issue. Despite leading the NHL with an average of 38.9 shots per game, they are tied for 28th in goals per game (2.60) with the Arizona Coyotes.

"If we could add a top-six forward, we certainly would like to do that," Waddell said. "If anything, we might have an extra defenseman we could use for trade bait."

The excitement the Hurricanes have generated with their youthful energy hasn't had a big impact at the box office. Their average attendance of 12,729 is up 9.2 percent from 11,665 through the end of November last season. But Waddell expects it to improve even more with the holidays approaching.

One of the big draws will be the game against the Boston Bruins on Dec. 23, when the Hurricanes will wear their Hartford Whalers throwback jerseys for the first time since moving to North Carolina in 1997. Dundon said attendance is usually good for the final game before Christmas anyway, and the novelty of the Whalers jerseys should add to that.

"It's 100 percent about we're in the entertainment business," Dundon said. "This is a great-looking logo and it will make that night different, make that night interesting and we need to be as interesting as possible."

Making the playoffs would help. In 2008-09, when the Hurricanes last qualified for the postseason, they averaged 16,573 fans per game.

"I've told [Dundon] that making the playoffs once isn't going to cure it, but it's going to be a big step forward," Waddell said. "We need to put together a little stretch here, and I think we have the guys, particularly the younger players, to continue to build around. But if we could ever find our way into the playoffs, that would be a huge step for our fan base."

Dundon acknowledged he'd like a few more wins, but he's been pleased with the effort and the direction the Hurricanes are headed.

"Culturally, it feels really good," Dundon said. "I don't think we have any regrets right now. We're doing the best we can even though we don't always get the best result. That's, I think, how it starts"

The players say the fun they appear to be having is genuine. The hope is it will eventually lead to more victories.

And more celebrations.

"It is fun, but winning is fun, right?" Williams said. "We haven't done enough of it to really be hooting and hollering, but we enjoy coming to the rink to see each other, which is, A, great. But Part 2 of that is winning games. We need to do more of that also."

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