- A surprising surge into the conference finals turned a 'Bunch of Jerks' into national darlings, but after the Hurricanes were summarily dismissed by the Bruins, Carolina's challenge will be to make its return to relevance stick.
A few days before the Eastern Conference Final, Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour sat in the players’ lounge at PNC Arena, spooning bites from a cup of Greek yogurt with added trail mix—one doesn’t earn a muscle-bound moniker such as Rod the Bod by simply snacking on crap—while bluntly relaying how far his team had come over the past year. “We weren’t relevant,” says Brind’Amour, an assistant of seven seasons prior to taking over behind the bench last May. “It was really frustrating to be a part of that, and know where we were, and how far off we were. I think we got back to being relevant this year. Now we have to stay with it.”
Indeed, that is the task on hand today. Less than two weeks later, the Hurricanes were summarily booted from their first Stanley Cup playoffs in a decade by the Bruins, falling 4–0 in Game 4 on Wednesday night and dropping the series by the same score. It was a sudden thud to a roller-coaster season, memorable for much more beyond what happened on the ice. But, between its ample cap space and cost-controlled young talent, Carolina won’t have a hard time reaching its goal of challenging across the long haul. “Mediocrity [was] something that [had] crept into this organization, and it shouldn’t,” says captain Justin Williams. “We needed to raise the bar and be talked about, not just as a playoff team but as a championship hockey team.”
Oh, they were talked about plenty. Through Dec. 20, the Hurricanes were hovering around a 2% home attendance increase over the 2017–18 season, when they ranked last league-wide; after the team caught fire in the second half, barely trailing Tampa Bay and St. Louis for the best record after Jan. 1, that figure finished at 12%. Entering the conference finals, according to GM Don Waddell, the team had already done $3 million in “new business” compared to $500,000 at the same time last year. Season-ticket renewal rates were additionally above 90%, while playoff merchandise sales were already more than double the team’s regular-season earnings.
“We were selling hope before,” Waddell said. “Now we’re selling reality.”
Also, “Bunch of Jerks” T-shirts. The origin story of the Storm Surge is somewhat murky, but here is the gist: One day at the start of the season, a clip of the Minnesota Vikings “Skol” chant was floating around the Carolina players’ group thread. (Some recall defenseman Justin Faulk, a native of South St. Paul, as the originator; Faulk says that he only sent “a better clip.”) “We all liked the idea of that,” fellow blueliner Jaccob Slavin says. “Then it became ‘Skol clap into something.’ That’s where the surge came from, jumping into the glass. I think that was Willy.”
Between his salt-and-pepper beard, perpetually raised sweatshirt hood and cool-guy calm, the 37-year-old Williams carries some serious Obi-Wan Kenobi vibes. But he has a young soul; when a reporter visited at his house in February 2018, Williams answered the door on a hoverboard scooter with blinking neon lights. And so it made perfect sense that Williams was the captain who led the fight against hockey’s fuddy-duddy establishment, gathering a small group of players in their lounge after each morning skate to plot out their next victory celebration.
“I’d tell the rookies every now and then to have me three new ideas by next week,” Williams says. “And there were plenty to choose from.” Inspiration came from many sources. Winger Brock McGinn, the hero of Game 7 against the Capitals, suggested the Thor-inspired hammer slam in which he wound up starring. Slavin’s best friend from his Raleigh-area church, Steven Madsen, was the brain behind the Bowling For Svech installment that saw teenage rookie Andrei Svechnikov slip-and-slide through a tunnel of teammates and into the net. There were even Star Wars– and Super Bowl–themed ones left on the cutting-room floor because the Canes lost. “It got a little more detailed after we started running out of ideas,” McGinn says. “There were maps, sketching out where everybody had to stand with numbers, what they had to do.”
Again this level of care is entirely typical of Williams, whom Slavin describes as a “goofy-serious, serious goofball.” It was why the first call Brind’Amour made upon getting promoted was to Williams, placing the C on his former teammate’s chest. “Easiest thing for me in the world,” Brind’Amour says. “A layup.” And it was why the Hurricanes responded when Williams blasted them in a players-only meeting shortly after Christmas. “You don’t want complacency to sink in anywhere,” Williams says. “Me, at the stage I’m at in my career, all I want to do is play meaningful hockey games. You don’t want to fade off into the sunset.”
Bringing the Stanley Cup back to Carolina, where he and Brind’Amour won together in 2006, would’ve been a fitting end for Williams’s decorated career. But he will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, as will rugged forward Micheal Ferland and both members of the Hurricanes’ surprisingly efficient goaltending tandem, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. Other youngsters are due raises, most notably franchise pillar Sebastian Aho. Change will come. But that is what happens when the bar is raised.
For now, it is fine to appreciate the underdog story of a 99-point wild card—whose head coach estimates that he has seen Rocky “a thousand times, easily”—taking down the reigning champs in double OT of Game 7 before steamrolling into the conference finals. That much happened in the final seconds of the Bruins series as a sustained ovation spread throughout PNC Arena, and after the final horn when Let’s! Go! Canes! chants rang loud.
There was no final Storm Surge, of course, only a rolled-out carpet and the Prince of Wales Trophy. As the Bruins gathered for a team picture and the Hurricanes trudged off the ice, the Sportsnet broadcast cut to a close-up of a teary-eyed woman. She was standing over the tunnel, holding a sign: WE LOVE THESE BUNCH OF JERKS
Even an amateur lip-reader could make out her words.
“Way to go boys! Thanks …”
Then the broadcast cut away.