I’d gotten an e-maul asking why I hadn’t posted anything in honor of the Warchief’s 1000th point the other night. Part of the reason is what I mentioned in a previous post. But I also didn’t know what to write, until this morning when I just sat down and actually gave the subject some serious thought.
It was 23 February 2000. I was on the way to the RBC Center (then called the ESA) for the annual Skate with the Canes event. The sky was overcast and threatening rain (and it did in fact rain that day), and I had turned on 850 the Buzz in time to hear Lee Corso from Radio Bristol make one of those same old lame-ass NASCAR cracks and talk about how Rod Brind’amour was going to a hockey backwater where nobody would care.
My first thought (after hollering “Fuck you, Corso!” at the radio):
“Cool, Primeau finally got traded! Now we can move on to other things.”
So I got to the temple, parked, and hustled inside to get in line. After telling off a couple eBayers who were trying to get me to sell them my ticket, I got into conversation with a couple cats who were talking about the trade–and that’s when I got the lowdown on the deal:
To PHI: Keith Primeau and a fifth-rounder in 2000
To CAR: Rod Brind’amour, Jean-Marc Pelletier, and a fourth-rounder in 2000
Ron Francis and Gary Roberts had left the event as soon as they heard the news, and were en route to the airport to greet the newest addition to the tribe. I’ll never forget it. One guy inside was talking about how Brind’amour was old, and I said “He’s my age (29 at the time)–he’s not that old.” But there were some concerns because of his foot having been broken and how his game hadn’t been the same since then.
His first game, I’ll never forget it. Jeff Daniels was wearing 17 at the time, so Rod took 27 (now worn by Hands of Feet) rather than ask for 17. He figured he wouldn’t be here long, so what the Hel. The crowd was light that night at the ESA, with snow in the forecast keeping some folks home (because they didn’t know if the roads would be in any condition to let them get home from the game).
(And before any of you mooks say anything, I want to point out that “snow” down here really means “six inches of slicked-up ice with a little sugar-powdering of snow on top of it”–the wise stay home, and only the stupid (and the noobs) go out roaring around at 80mph in their SUVs (which wind up in the ditch).)
I was up in 326, on the ledge. When Rod was introduced by PA announcer Tony Gilliam (“And, at center, Number 27–the newest Hurricane, RRRRRRRROOOOODDDD BRRINNNNNND’AMOURRRRR!”), the crowd roared louder than they did for everyone else. That roar was the relief of the fanbase expressing itself, right there. We were all just flat relieved that the sad drama of the Primeau holdout was over, and that we could just move the fuck ON. Rod played what was possibly one of his worst games that night, but you’ll find few people that were there that night that’ll say that, because we were just happy that the drama was done. I drove past Eric Fichaud on my way home, and wasn’t really thinking about the trade (mostly cos I was concerned with getting my ass home in one piece as the super-wet snow had already started to fall).
The sight of snow, for me, has become a harbinger of good things. When it snows here in Raleigh, I know that something good will happen.
A couple weeks later, I was talking with another fan who told me that Rod was unhappy. He hated it here, he wanted out, he was just plain miserable. I don’t know why, but I just shrugged and said “He’ll come around. Just watch.” My gut told me that he wasn’t just going to up and bail. He didn’t strike me as that kind of person, for some reason.
Bob Boughner laid Rod out in Pittsburgh in the first week in April, and that was it for that season.
The following season, the ‘Canes were deep in a race with Boston for the 8th seed and the right to face the Devils in the first round. It was 30 March 2001, and the ‘Canes were playing the Capitals at the ESA a couple days after a disastrous showing at the Phone Booth (7-0–and I was in the house for that debacle, too). The score was tied in OT, and Rod drove in on Olie Kolzig and stuffed the game-winner behind him to get his 300th goal–and it was then I knew that he’d come around.
It was the shape of things to come.
It was 18 April 2001, and the Hurricanes were facing off against the Devils at the ESA in Game 4 of the Conference quarterfinals. They were down 3-0, had been humiliated the night before, and the crowd was fully expecting them to roll over and die. I think I still have that game on tape somewhere. It was all tied up, headed to OT, and Sami Kapanen was teeing up a shot from the point. He hesitated for a moment–just for an eyeblink–and wound up passing the puck to a guy in a white jersey who stuffed it behind Brodeur to win the game. “CAROLINA’S ALIVE! BRIND’AMOUR!!” was the call by Bristolero Steve Levy as the ESA erupted. I rang Louie the Mojo Bell like I’d never rung him before and hugged all the other folks around me in 111, because I knew…
It was the goal that saved this franchise’s ass.
That summer, the debate was raging on The Penalty Box (may it RIP): would Brind’amour re-sign, or would he hold out for a trade like Primeau did? I boldly stated that he’d be back, that he’d be wearing the Sightless Eye come training camp. I got told by several people that I was all wet, and that he’d leave. But I stood my ground and said “He’ll sign, you watch.” I tell you what kids, I never felt more smug than I did when I posted “See? Told you he’d sign.” after he signed that six-year deal.
It was Rod’s way of saying that he’d come around.
It was 13 June 2002, and the Hurricanes forced themselves to stand there and watch the Red Wings celebrate. Rod had this look on his face like he wanted to kill somebody, a mixture of hurt and anger that I’ll never forget. He suppressed his emotions as he went through the handshake line, congratulating each and every last one of the Red Wings because it was the right thing to do (even though he didn’t want to do it). I did as he did and forced myself to shake the hands of the Red Wings fans that were watching near me at the ESA, even as I was inwardly cursing them with every fibre of my being.
It was the greatest heartbreak of my fannish life and one that bonded each and every one of us–fans and team–together.
It was 9 March 2004, and the Hurricanes had traded Ron Francis to the Leafs so he could have another shot at a title. Quite a few of us were upset. Many of us felt abandoned. A scattered few were convinced that the trade would spell doom for the franchise. Rod just quietly picked up where Ronnie left off and led the Hurricanes along with the rest of the tribal Elders as the season wound down and the fires of Ragnarok loomed on the horizon.
It was a glimmer of hope that somehow got overlooked in the coming storm.
It was 16 February 2005, and I saw a little news item on TSN saying that Rod had signed with the Kloten Flyers of the Swiss League. His marriage had foundered, and he was looking for some kind of direction in his life. He wanted to know that he could still bring the heat. So he went, and he played, and he did pretty well even as Kloten fought to avoid relegation.
It was a personal renaissance.
It was 25 August 2005, and Rod was named Captain of the Hurricanes–the Warchief of the clan. Some disagreed with the decision. Some scratched their heads. But I and several others knew that the right decision had been made. Where Ronnie Francis was Speaker of the House, Rod Brind’amour had been the Whip. He was the one who set an example, who helped keep the troops in line. When Ron left, it was up to Rod to step forward and finally–at long last–take the place that had been prepared for him and lead the clan. The Hurricanes had given him the stability that the Flyers could never give him, and he showed his gratitude the best way he knew how: by doing his best and inspiring his teammates to do the same.
It was only a matter of time before it would pay off.
It was 19 June 2006, and Rod stood smiling at center ice waiting for Gary Bettman to finish speaking so he could finally claim the prize that he had been seeking for so long. The moment was indescribably beautiful–Rod looked like a man who’d just had the weight of the world taken off his shoulders, like the Universe had just given him a cookie saying “Sorry for the inconvenience” and told him that he could go ahead and eat it, and it wouldn’t be taken away from him or me or anyone else who had stuck with the team from Hartford to Greensboro Year One through 2002 and the Season From Hel and even Ragnarok.
It was one of the two proudest moments of my life.
It was 9 August 2006, and my brother-in-law called to tell me that the Pregnant Motie Warrior had just given birth to The Flea. I decided right then that I was going to get my hands on every single game of the 2006 Cup run and burn them all to CDs so that I can show them to the Flea and say “Watch these, and you’ll understand why I’m so proud that you share a birthday with him. He’s my Warchief, he’s Strength and Honor personified, and one day I hope you get to meet him…”
…because I’m so very proud of him.