The windows were open in Gary Bettman’s suite, and even with the game still some 20 minutes away, the noise and excitement poured in from outside and filled the room. The NHL commissioner had been skeptical when Tom Dundon proposed the idea of an outdoor hockey game as he was finalizing his purchase of the Carolina Hurricanes.
To see — to hear — the scene stretched out before him in Carter-Finley Stadium, it’s hard to imagine there had ever been any doubt.
“Would you have believed 57,000 people would be at an outdoor hockey game in Carolina, ever?” Bettman told The News & Observer.
Even for Bettman, whose faith in the future of the Hurricanes has been unwavering for more than 25 years, this was a little hard to comprehend. The 2011 All-Star Game had felt like a victory lap for hockey in the Triangle, but everything about this feels like another level entirely.
“This is different. This is bigger,” Bettman said. “As you spend time in the Triangle, this game and the vibe is everywhere. Yesterday, the rain didn’t dampen the fan fest in Raleigh. We were in Durham this morning and people were wearing jerseys everywhere. You watch the local news, it’s all they talk about. It is a testament to how hockey can put down roots and captivate a market. It’s a testament to Pete Karmanos’ vision and Tom Dundon’s execution of elevating everything this franchise does on and off the ice. And it’s a testament to a generation of hockey fans.”
Bettman did note the traffic getting into Carter-Finley on Saturday, and asked if it was like that for N.C. State football games. But he also noted that he and Dundon had discussed again that morning how any redevelopment of the area around the arena — as Dundon is proposing to do — would include improved ingress and egress for the entire stadium/arena complex.
Saturday’s snarls were a product of the interest in the game and one of the very few issues on a night when everything else seemed to go right, from the party in the parking lots to the atmosphere inside.
Still, this was far from a fait accompli, and Bettman did take some convincing when Dundon first proposed the concept, even mentioning it while sitting next to Bettman on the very first day he owned the team. But as it became clear that Dundon was committed to investing in the product — spending up to the salary cap and revitalizing the team’s image with clever marketing — the NHL warmed to the idea.
“He wanted one because he thought it would be a signature statement for the franchise and the community,” Bettman said. “And I believed that the timing would be right as the team’s fortunes both on and off the ice continued to improve. The ironic thing is, and he mentioned it to me today, he figured, ‘We get an outdoor game, we put down ice, how big a deal can it be to operate this?’ And he said to me today, ‘What’s involved is beyond anything I expected or anticipated.’ We knew. We’ve done 37 of these.”