With the arrival of Opening Night, comes the excitement of a new hockey season. The Carolina Hurricanes will begin the 2009-2010 campaign tonight when they host the Philadelphia Flyers at the RBC Center. This afternoon, fans throughout the Triangle will be dusting off their Staal jerseys, Skip Cunningham will be sharpening skates and Chuck Kaiton will be studying the Flyers lineup high above the ice. Almost sixteen years ago to the day, a similar ritual unfolded in the Hartford Civic Center when the Whalers hosted the Flyers on Opening Night of the 1993-1994 season.
Some familiar faces were on the ice that night in Hartford. Chris Pronger was skating in only his second professional game. Rod Brind’Amour and Kevin Dineen wore the distinct orange and black jerseys of the Philadelphia squad. Paul Holmgren, a long time Flyer and present day General Manager, was behind the Whaler’s bench. Standing beside him was his assistant, Pierre McGuire, who is likely best known for standing between the benches on various NHL cable broadcasts.
But that is where the similarities end. The Whalers were a mess in the early 1990s. Among many other issues, poor personnel decisions lead to an inconsistent product on the ice and turmoil in the stands. Brian Burke’s departure as GM mere weeks before Opening Night added to the uncertainly. The 1993-1994 Whalers bore little resemblance to Jim Rutherford’s present day Hurricanes.
After an unexpectedly long playoff run last season, the Hurricanes were allowed the luxury of making only a few changes over the summer. With the additions of forwards Erik Cole and Chad LaRose, Carolina is bringing back essentially the same squad that played their way into the Eastern Conference finals last season.
Cam Ward, just 25 years of age, was the biggest reason for Carolina’s long postseason run, tallying a 39-23-5 record and a 2.44 goals against average. Look for Ward to start between 65 and 70 games this season, with backup Michael Leighton picking up the rest of the goalkeeper duties.
On defense, Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo will lead the way offensively. Pitkanen, who was injured for most of the preseason, is expected to be in the lineup tonight. Tim Gleason and veteran Aaron Ward, who rejoins the club via off-season trade with Boston, will add stability on the blue line.
Up front, Rutherford is looking for Eric Staal, the undisputed leader of this team, to have a faster start than last season. Maurice is hoping that Ray Whitney can match his offensive output from last year. Look for Jussi Jokinen to add depth at wing and center, and Tuomo Ruutu and Tom Kostopoulos to add grit to the lineup. But to be successful again this season, the Hurricanes will need Matt Cullen to step up as a strong center behind Staal, as well as a healthy Brind’Amour to contribute regularly on the ice and in the locker room.
But, none of this really matters on Opening Night. Last years’ statistics, summer-time trades and preseason predictions won’t lift you out of your seats tonight. Hockey fans across the league are just looking forward to the top-shelf goals, the sprawling saves and the bone crushing hits. And, depending on who you ask, maybe even a fight or two.
If you were at that Opening Night in Hartford in 1993, you would have seen Chris Pronger register his first professional point. Brind’Amour, who was beginning only his third major league season, tallied two assists, including a helper on Dineen’s game wining goal. The Whalers lost 5-2, and would go on to lose 47 more games that year. Before the campaign would be over, Holmgren would take a mid-season leave of absence, and Whaler fans were left to watch McGuire lead the team for 67 games to a 0.396 wining percentage. Both the Whale and the Flyers would miss the playoffs, but change was on the horizon. Elsewhere that October, Paul Maurice stood behind the bench as a head coach for the first time in his career, leading Rutherford’s Detroit Jr. Red Wings. Just four years later, Maurice would become the head coach of the franchise that he will lead tonight at the RBC Center.
While the teams, jerseys and even the cities have changed, this evening’s Opening Night will once again pit Brind’Amour against Pronger and Holmgren. Whether Chuck Kaiton will call another great ‘Canes season will not be known for awhile, regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game. But, anything is possible on Opening Night. So, bring on the breakaways, the stacked pads and the cold beer. It’s hockey season once again.