RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes have ridden the outrage train right into the Stanley Cup Playoff race.
At 32-22-6 with 68 points heading into Tuesday night’s home game against the New York Rangers, the Hurricanes are just outside the playoff picture and buzzworthy for the first time in a long time.
“We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.” Justin Williams memorably said back in July 2017 after returning as a free agent to the city where he won his first Stanley Cup in 2006.
Williams has had to wait. Last season’s dual-captaincy — which didn’t include Williams wearing any letter — was not what the veteran, deemed “Mr. Game 7,” signed up for when he inked a two-year deal to come back to the Hurricanes.
But here we are less than a week away from the NHL’s trade deadline, and the Hurricanes — while not rental buyers — aren’t being mined for every contending team for the playoff push.
They’re in the hunt and in the news thanks to the latest chastising from north of the border.
CBC’s Don Cherry laid into the Hurricanes for their postgame “Storm Surge” celebrations on his “Coach’s Corner” segment on Saturday’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” adding the “bunch of jerks” label to Sportnet resident curmudgeon Brian Burke’s “peewee garbage” assessment of the team’s antics.
The team parlayed Cherry’s comments into a positive and profit, quickly turning around a “Bunch of Jerks” shirt that, despite being $35, sold out immediately. A second wave is now available, and the shirts were expected to be available at Tuesday’s game — where they will no doubt will fly off the shelves.
Such is the news cycle of the new-look Hurricanes.
Ever since Tom Dundon bought the team last January, pundits, fans, players and everyone in between have found some reason to be outraged about what Carolina is doing.
The foundation of fan frustration is the nine-year playoff drought — goodwill from a Stanley Cup can only last so long — and some lingering supporters were further shaken by the dismissal of franchise icon Ron Francis as GM last March. His new role as president of hockey operations was terminated a month later.
More significantly, it rattled the hockey establishment — most of which are in Canada, with many more than willing to look down their nose at a Sunbelt team — who rushed to defend Francis while bashing Dundon and the team.
The ensuing search for Francis’ replacement played out like George W. Bush’s search for a running mate, with the man leading the search (Don Waddell) eventually taking the job.
Again, Dundon was in the crosshairs — both for lowballing potential candidates and for picking the man who struggled with the now-defunct Thrashers in his last GM gig.
Next came the offseason. The Hurricanes did hit the jackpot by landing the second overall pick in the NHL Draft lottery — some, of course, called the outcome fixed — and drafting future star Andrei Svechnikov.
Then Waddell swung his first major trade, dealing two former fifth overall picks, Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, to Calgary for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox. (Lindholm would later mock the PNC Arena fans with a Skol clap of his own after the Flames beat the Hurricanes in Raleigh on Feb. 3.)
Some called Dundon “cheap” for refusing to cave to the two outgoing players’ contract demands, but many saw it as a hockey trade that could work for both teams.
The next trade was widely panned. Former face of the franchise Jeff Skinner was shipped to Buffalo in August for second-, third- and sixth-round picks, along with prospect Cliff Pu. Fast forward a few months, and Skinner made it look even worse by scoring a combined 20 goals in October and November.
On Dec. 23, there was more outrage when the team’s previously banished aesthetic history was fully embraced with Whalers Night, angering many of the Hartford faithful. (The next Whalers Night, in Boston on March 5, will surely reopen these wounds again.)
Then in more uniform news, the Hurricanes began requesting to wear their red home sweaters on the road — Dundon allegedly hates the team’s white sweaters — and several teams obliged. More anger.
And now the “bunch of jerks” saga. The Hurricanes seemed to have curried favor with the masses over this — and really had the support of most with their varied takes on the Storm Surge anyway — by leaning into Cherry’s beanball.
Coach Rod Brind’Amour, the epitome of modern-day old-school hockey, defended the team’s new interactive postgame tradition as misunderstood.
“It’s not about everyone else; they’re missing the point,” Brind’Amour said Monday after practice, reluctantly addressing the latest viral controversy. “It’s about our players engaging our fans and thanking them for sticking with us and being there and trying to provide a little levity to a pretty serious game.”
Dundon further made news Tuesday when it was announced he was investing $250 million in the Alliance of American Football and would be named the league’s chairman.
It was just another log on the fire in what has been a memorable 13 months under the new owner.
You could even say they’re relevant again.