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Opening day of Fan Fair attracts legions to Raleigh

by Dave Lozo
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Thousands of fans from near and far poured into the NHL Fan Fair at the Raleigh Convention Center on Friday to take part in a host of activities and wait for a chance to meet Carolina Hurricanes rookie All-Star Jeff Skinner.

The festive atmosphere included dancers, music and the sweet sound of hockey pucks crashing into boards and glass. Fans could test their skills at stick handling and accuracy, measure the power of their shot or take the less strenuous route and watch a video on the Guardian Project.

Matthew Hite went right for the big-ticket item when he arrived for the start of the Fan Fair at 3 p.m. Clad in his red Hurricanes jersey, he hopped in line to wait for the chance to meet the 19-year-old Skinner, who was added to the All-Star roster Wednesday.

Hite grew up in Los Angeles and remembers how hockey took over there after Wayne Gretzky arrived on the scene in 1988. Hite spent five years living in Missouri, which he called "hockey purgatory" during some lean years for the Blues, before moving to Raleigh in 2006.

As he waited for a chance to meet Skinner, Hite said Raleigh today has the same sort of atmosphere that Los Angeles did when Gretzky came to California. Now he just hopes his Hurricanes keep the team together for a playoff push.

"If our team's in sixth at the trade deadline and we have all that talent in (AHL) Charlotte, I can understand (GM) Jim Rutherford's predicament," said Hite, who sang the praises of Chad LaRose.

Marcy Rodgers of Raleigh was on a mission of her own. Everyone who paid their $10 to get into the Fan Fair had a chance to be selected at random to win a bracelet that would gain them entry to the NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft.

Rodgers arrived early with a sign that read, "PICK US AT RANDOM OUR WRIST YOU CAN BAND'EM, SUPPORTING TEAM STAAL IT'S A SOUTHERN THING Y'ALL." The sign didn't have the desired effect, but it wasn't for a lack of effort.

"I've been here since 3. Well, 2," Rodgers said. "I'm a huge Canes fan and got a picture with Eric Staal before."

It wasn't just the fans who were having a blast -- even the people who worked the booths were getting in on the fun.

Fans were given the chance to fire pucks at live goaltenders from about 10 feet away. Mike Grabowski and Ian Foley took turns trying to stop shots from a wide array of talents, from 6-year-old girls who could barely hold the stick to adult males who seemed to be unleashing years of frustration in form of blistering slap shots.

Grabowski and Foley work together at the Cary Ice House and were asked if they'd be interested in playing goalie during the three-day event. They both jumped at the chance, even though Grabowski had no experience between the pipes.

"I was off today and he asked if I'd be willing to do it," said Grabowski, who signed up for about four consecutive hours of stopping pucks. "It's just fun to be a part of this. It sounded like fun so I said yes."

Foley said Grabowski offered a bribe, but that claim was denied.

"I wouldn't say it was a bribe," Grabowski said. "I'll have to get him something though."

The sprawling landscape of games and activities wasn't just jaw-dropping for the close to 10,000 fans who attended. Even Skinner could identify with how much fun an event like this can be for fans.

"It's crazy. I saw the whole set-up from up top and it's unbelievable," he said. "If I was a young kid coming in as a fan of the game, it's a great event. There's a lot of fun stuff for the kids to do, and for the adults there's a lot of entertainment here too. It's a crazy, crazy weekend but it's great for the organization and great for the League."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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