NHL hoping to avoid Carter-Finley Stadium’s traffic history

Traffic begins to back up on eastbound Wade Avenue as commuters and football fans clash for lane space near Carter-Finley Stadium in 2009.

Traffic begins to back up on eastbound Wade Avenue as commuters and football fans clash for lane space near Carter-Finley Stadium in 2009.

It has been almost 14 years, but there may still be a few cars left abandoned on the side of Wade Avenue by U2 fans who thought they could show up at 6:45 p.m. for a 7 p.m. concert at Carter-Finley Stadium.

The history of traffic snarls for non-football games at the stadium is a long one — U2, the Rolling Stones, Beyonce and beyond — which is why NHL officials are already urging hockey fans to arrive as early as possible for Saturday’s Stadium Series game, even when lots open at 2 p.m., six hours before puck drop.

“We’ve taken a look at those,” said Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer and event producer. “We’ve actually been here for college football games. We’ve worked with not only the Carolina Hurricanes but state and local authorities. We’ve definitely looked at the traffic situation. I have to admit, it’s one of the reasons why I’m saying loud and clear: Come early.”

It’s good advice. The best advice.

There are many reasons why traffic tends to proceed more smoothly for N.C. State football games than other events at the stadium, from assigned spots for football pass-holders that spread traffic flows to multiple entrances, to hard-earned experience. It’s a big reason tailgating is such a big part of Wolfpack culture: Enough fans choose to arrive early that the staggered arrival flow spaces out tens of thousands of fans over five or six hours.

But many concert-goers — and, in this case, hockey fans — don’t have those generations of local knowledge, and in the past that’s resulted in massive clogs of later arrivals, especially with all lots being general admission and highway signage directing people toward the stadium from I-40 to Wade Avenue to Edwards Mill rather than the back roads and alternate routes generations of Wolfpack fans have passed down to their children. When U2 played in 2009, I-40 was backed up for six miles.

That highway history has loomed over this event from the start, to the point where the Hurricanes at one time urged the NHL and N.C. State to open the lots even two hours earlier, at noon. Quietly, other than warm rain, it’s the one thing organizers know can tarnish what has the potential to be an amazing night. And while the NHL has the pomp and circumstance of these big events down to a science, traffic has gotten out of its control before.

In the 2020 Stadium Series game at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, a perfect storm of late arrivals clogging I-25 from Denver, limited access to the academy grounds from the interstate, bad weather and multiple accidents meant that some fans didn’t get into Falcon Stadium until the third period. Air Force football fans have known for decades to arrive early to avoid those bottlenecks. Colorado Avalanche fans did not.

To incentivize early arrivals, the NHL has set up a big fan festival outside PNC Arena that starts at 2 p.m. when the lots open. There’s a concert at 4 p.m. and the teams’ red-carpet arrivals at 5:15 p.m. There are planned, although yet to be announced, park-and-ride options from the State Fair satellite lots on Reedy Creek and Chapel Hill roads for fans without passes for the Carter-Finley lots, and the N.C. State Veterinary School parking deck will be open for those willing to walk a mile down Trinity Road.

But there’s only so much anyone can do about putting 57,000 people into a stadium complex that has essentially only three entrances in if they all show up at once.

“There’s things to do for those who arrive early and fans here, we know, like to tailgate,” Mayer said. “That would be a really smart way to avoid what could be tighter traffic to get in. But we have looked at it. We definitely do for each and every one of our games, no matter where we happen to be playing, but that was a consideration here.”

So: If there was ever a time to show off how the Triangle can tailgate, Saturday is the day. Arrive early. Make a day of it. In 14 years, tell stories about how you watched a hockey game in a football stadium that would have seemed like an acid trip even five or six years ago, not how you listened to the cheers from your car waiting to get in.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered six Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He is the current president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, was the 2020 winner of the National Headliner Award as the country’s top sports columnist and has twice been named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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