Saturday Night Lights
Saturday night in Raleigh was one for the ages. It was the culmination of an incredible week for the Carolina Hurricanes organization. The Hurricanes became the 28th NHL Franchise to take part in one of the outdoor games, but I don’t imagine this will be the last time. As the Stadium Series has grown over the years, the NHL has gotten more and more adventurous by playing outdoors in Los Angeles, Nashville and now Raleigh. Yes, the NHL played outdoor hockey in the south. I thought we’d never see the day. But that day arrived, and let me just tell you, Raleigh showed out. And the Canes showed out. And 56,000 Caniacs (okay, maybe slightly less, there were a few Caps fans) showed out.
We won’t even jump all that far into the game itself. Picture this: A car without a steering wheel. Not ideal, right? The car may go, but actually driving isn’t possible. The Washington Capitals looked very similar without star Alex Ovechkin. Unfortunately, Ovechkin missed the game due to being with his family following the death of his father. Ovechkin is an absolute legend. He will go down as one of the greatest to ever do it, and in my opinion, he will be the greatest scorer of all time. Washington desperately needed their captain Saturday night, as the team strolled into a raucous and rowdy Carter-Finley Stadium to take on the metropolitan division leading Canes. It didn’t take long for the Canes to make a statement as Jesperi Kotkaniemi found the back of the net with his 10th goal of the season just two minutes and 11 seconds into the game. Carolina thoroughly controlled the rest of the period with possession of the puck and shots on goal.
In the 2nd period, the Canes opened the floodgates. Paul Stastny picked up a greasy goal on a puck that rebounded high into the air. Washington net-minder, Darcy Keumper had very little chance to make a play as the Canes made it 2-0. Minutes later Martin Necas did his best Ovechkin impression as he ripped a slapshot on the powerplay from the faceoff circle. And Teuvo Teravainen found the net thanks to some incredible passing between he and Necas on an odd-man rush. Even though the Caps found a goal late in the game (a weak one at that), the Hurricanes looked like the clearly better team in almost every facet of the game.
But enough about the game, let’s talk about the event itself. Let me say this; I’ve never seen a tailgating or game day environment like this before. Carolina Hurricanes fans have always been known to have a little fun pre-game, but this… this was wild. The parking lots opened at 2 p.m. (for an 8 p.m. game), and cars flooded in. Now this is one of my very few complaints. I will never understand why the decision was made for 2 p.m. Why not just allow fans access to the lots earlier in the morning? This caused major traffic issues all around the stadium between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Once the lots opened, the parties started. I’d say within an hour of opening, most of the lots were 70% full and there were tailgates as far as the eye could see. By 5 p.m., I’m not even sure they were still letting cars in, but Raleigh was ready. Walking through the lots you get all the smells; North Carolina Barbeque, sausages, hot dogs, wings, Bojangles, alcohol, anything and everything. It was simply beautiful. I’m not sure I’ve ever witness a tailgating event like this. And listen, I grew up in SEC Football country. I’ve also thrown myself my fair share of tailgates, but this was unmatched. Raleigh partied and partied hard, all afternoon Saturday.
And if you didn’t want to set things up on your own, the NHL and Truly partnered together to have their own tailgate fan experience. Complete with skills challenge games, live music, bubble hockey, Stanley Cup photo opportunities, NHL23 live tournament finals and of course food and beverages, there was plenty to keep fans occupied. As the sun began to set, fans began to make their way into the football home of the NC State Wolfpack. Only on this night, the playing surface was a little bit smaller and a whole lot colder. I kid you not, about an hour before the puck was set to drop (remember this is still well before warmups even begin), the stadium began to fill. It was about 40-50% full by 7 p.m. There was not a seat in sight with about 15 minutes left on the clock before the puck drop.
The atmosphere and environment were immaculate. The Canes and the NHL definitely leaned into the college vibes of Raleigh and NC State. The game featured the NC State marching band on field level behind the Canes attack twice end, and on the other end an actual student section with college students there on the floor behind the glass. Both were a very cool touch in the design of the game. Let me just shoutout the NC State band. They sounded incredible and really added a complete level of uniqueness I’ve never experienced at an NHL game. During the game, the fans got live performances from Jake Owen and lovelytheband. Neither are exactly my cup of tea, but they weren’t bad. Entertaining, at least.
Every little aspect of the night was well thought out and well done. From the sparking stream of fireworks out of the back of the airplanes during the flyover, to the celebratory fireworks and flames at the end of the game, it was an amazing atmosphere. It was truly unlike any sporting event I’ve ever been to. Plus, there is just something different and amazing about playing hockey outdoors. Of course, playing in a football stadium makes the sight lines a challenge. However because of the design of Carter-Finley Stadium really there were not a lot of bad seats. Obviously the lower you sat, the more obstructed your view may be. But, the upper level and higher parts of the lower level, that was prime seating. You could see everything perfectly. I sat roughly twenty rows up and really only struggled to see one corner of the ice and the puck along the near end boards.
And the weather… come on! Perfection. Saturday was beautiful. Low 50s as a high throughout the day, slight breeze and not a cloud in the sky. Plus, it was a chilly evening. Not overly cold and by no means unbearable. The perfect temperature for an outdoor game that wasn’t freezing, but cold enough to where you are definitely excited to get back into car and crank the heat.
I keep replaying the day back in my head and I’m pretty sure it will go down as a top five sports experience in my life. I’ve walked Augusta National, seen the Braves win a World Series and experienced several SEC Championships, but this… this was right up there. What an incredible night for the Hurricanes, for the city of Raleigh and for all of the Caniacs. We’ve had our fun and now it’s back to business with about 25 games left in the regular season and then the real season begins. Hopefully, the Canes can bring their momentum back from Carter-Finley just across the street into their house at PNC Arena.