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Hall honors Karmanos for efforts to grow game

by Brian Compton takes a look at each of the seven individuals who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Nov. 9.

When Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. stands at the podium Monday as part of the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2015, there will be emotions he hasn't experienced since the final seconds of Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final were counted down at RBC Center.

"Nervous as hell," Karmanos said. "I was telling [Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis] how nervous I was, and he [was inducted in 2007]. He said, 'You're not alone.' It's going to be interesting. I'm going to have fun."

Karmanos, who's being inducted in the Builders category, has been involved in hockey for four decades. He helped create Compuware Hockey, a Michigan-based program that has produced 15 national championships and 34 state championships, sent 235 players to NCAA Division I schools, and produced 14 NHL first-round draft picks.

"It's really hard to describe," the 72-year-old said. "I did start it because I wasn't happy with, just in general, how people were approaching hockey back in the '70s with their kids. God bless 'em, but it was all parents and volunteers, and they didn't seem to have a plan or they weren't even thinking about that. I wanted to put together a program where it was really organized, and we got some younger guys coaching the kids and non-parents. I wanted to make it sustainable, so we started managing ice arenas and class hockey schools and stuff to produce revenue so we could put that back into the minor program.

"The first year we had a midget team and we had Pat LaFontaine and Al Iafrate play on it. There was talent already developed that showed up and really kick-started the whole program."

LaFontaine and Iafrate were the first of many to reach the NHL. Other notable players were Eric Lindros, Mike Modano, David Legwand, Brian Rolston and James Wisniewski.

New York Islanders assistant general manager and assistant coach Doug Weight, a Michigan native, was a member of Carolina's Stanley Cup-winning team who got to know Karmanos on a personal level during his brief yet memorable stint with the Hurricanes. But long before Weight arrived in Carolina, he was well aware of the impact Karmanos had on the sport.

(Weight and Karmanos were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013.)

"What he's done not only for hockey at the NHL level, at the minor-league level, but his philanthropy for the kids and his programs in Detroit have been going on for years and years and years," Weight said. "I remember listening to him on the radio telling the story of how he got it started in the Detroit area. He was passionate, and he remains that way.

"He owns a big piece of that nickname 'Hockeytown.' I think he started that. For a lot of years, you had people traveling to live in Detroit to play hockey, which is odd. I don't care how close it is to Canada, it's odd for an American city. I think he deserves a lot of that credit. From everything he's done through youth hockey, through charity, through the minor-league systems and obviously up in the NHL with Carolina/Hartford, it's just been a stellar career for him. This is probably overdue, but well-deserved."

Karmanos bought the Hartford Whalers in 1994 and relocated the team three years later; the renamed Hurricanes played two seasons in Greensboro, N.C., before their current home, now called PNC Arena, opened in 1999. They were one of the first teams to venture into the South. The Hurricanes' winning ways helped them quickly create a fan base; Carolina reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2002, when they lost to Karmanos' hometown Red Wings. Four years later, the Hurricanes were NHL champions.

"It wasn't hard to move from Hartford because the governor at that time was really more interested in getting the [NFL's New England] Patriots to move to Hartford," Karmanos said. "We desperately needed a new building. The year we bought it, [the Whalers] finished dead last and they didn't average 6,000, 7,000 fans a game.

"They had an arena in Raleigh that they were just building and they offered us to run the building and get all the revenue streams, all the stuff owners always talk about. We didn't have any other pro teams to compete with. In Hartford, you competed vigorously with the Boston Bruins and the [New York] Rangers. The only time we ever really sold out was when we played the Bruins or Rangers and the crowd would be mostly Bruins or Rangers fans. It was very difficult."

Francis, who Karmanos asked to run the Hurricanes in April 2014, said he believes his owner picked the right spot when he decided to move the Whalers 18 years ago.

"I'm sure he had other places he could have looked at when moving the franchise down, but he firmly believed in the Raleigh market and still does," Francis said. "We really like the building we have and the location. It's a great place to live and raise a family."

The Hurricanes won Game 7 against the Edmonton Oilers 3-1 to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.

"Maybe the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever gone through in my life," he said. "It was just sheer joy. It went to a seventh game, and there's nothing quite like that anyway. I remember the fans in the building standing the whole game. It was really exciting, really special."

The parking lot had become a place for fans to get together for tailgating and mingling before games. Every time Karmanos arrives at the rink, it makes him smile.

"It's so unusual," Karmanos said. "I remember we were playing [the Toronto Maple Leafs] in the playoffs one year. We put the tickets on sale and 5,000 or tickets were sold to Toronto people who came down and they were just absolutely blown away with the tailgating. When they were out in the parking lot partying with all the Carolina fans, I remember a state trooper saying, 'You know, all you hockey fans are different. There has not been a single fight out there.'"

Karmanos said he was astonished when he got the call earlier this year that he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but Francis said he isn't the least bit surprised. In fact, he makes the case it is overdue.

"I think it's easy once you see him get inducted and the credentials he has to say that," Francis said. "I never, ever got the sense from Pete that he was doing what he was doing to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It's his passion for the game and wanting to help grow it. I think he gets a ton of pride out of knowing that he helped so many different kids have the opportunity to get to play in the NHL or get to go to college and have a scholarship. I think for him, that was the true reason behind it, was to help grow our game and give kids the opportunity to succeed.

"I'm really excited for him. This is a guy that has given easily over 40 years to the game of hockey in a lot of different capacities. He's given multiple kids the opportunity to play by developing a program like Compuware. He owned a junior team, he owned an [ECHL] team, owned a NHL team. He's certainly invested a lot of not only money, but time and energy into growing the game of hockey. It's extremely well-deserved for all the efforts he's put in to making our game better."


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