Success smells like smoked barbecue for the Carolina Hurricanes. The more they win, the earlier tailgating begins at PNC Arena.
Saturday’s home game against the Buffalo Sabres starts at 7 p.m. “By noon there will be hundreds of people in our parking lot,” Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said.
With the Hurricanes currently holding the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, they are in position for their first playoff appearance in a decade.
“Everyone was aware of the team, but now they are talking about the team,” Waddell said.
There is a similar story in Arizona, where the fan base has been energized by the Coyotes’ frenzied effort to qualify for the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2012. They occupy the Western Conference’s final wild-card spot.
Coach Rick Tocchet promised his injury-riddled team would “scratch and claw” their way to success, and they are 10-2 in their last 12 games.
“That phrase, scratching and clawing, has resonated with the team and the whole market,” Coyotes president and CEO Ahron Cohen said. “That’s what we are about – it’s resiliency and fighting for every inch, playing with a chip on their shoulder.”
Given the length of their playoff absence, it’s hard to believe too many teams would receive more benefit from a playoff appearance than the Hurricanes and Coyotes. The last time both franchises were in the playoffs at the same time was 2002.
“I even look at from what it would mean for growing the sport in Arizona,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. “Obviously, since we last made the playoffs, we’ve had (Arizona resident) Auston Matthews be a No. 1 pick and there has been a huge explosion in youth hockey because of that. And some of those young players have never experienced an NHL playoff atmosphere.”
Both Arizona and Carolina are markets where attracting new fans is still a primary mission.
“It’s the buzz you create,” Waddell said. “There is a lot more interest now, a lot more people buying tickets. Now we have to take fans beyond hope and belief and give them the reality of the playoffs.”
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Just the excitement of the playoff chase has had major benefits for both teams. Carolina’s attendance is up 12% and the suite sales are up 15%.
“We are seeing a lot of positive metrics throughout the organization,” Cohen said. “Our TV ratings are up, our corporate sales are up, our ticket sales are up, our merchandise, our food and beverage, across the gambit.”
In February, the Coyotes had back-to-back home sellouts in games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets.
“I get attendance and ticket sale numbers every morning,” Cohen said. “And the numbers we’re getting are unheard of for this time of year.”
Both teams are drawing more national attention than they have received in recent years. Tocchet is considered a coach of the year candidate for the job he has donein the face of an overwhelming number of injuries. At one point, the Coyotes had 10 regulars on the injured list.
“We offer entertaining hockey,” Chayka said. “Our guys play hard. They have overcome a lot of adversity, showed resiliency. It’s one of those stories that fans love.”
The Coyotes call it a “mosaic of positivity.”
“(Goalie) Darcy Kuemper hasn’t been a starter before and coming in and doing it at this level and Conor Garland coming up from Tucson (of the American Hockey League) has created a lot of buzz in our market,” Chayka said.
The national spotlight is just starting to find Hurricanes blossoming superstar Sebastian Aho, who has 30 goals and 77 points in 70 games.
“If he were in a larger hockey market, he would be getting a lot more attention,” Waddell said. “But he will sell more jerseys than any other player this year.”
PERFECT RESPONSE: Hurricanes embrace Don Cherry’s criticism
The Hurricanes have also received considerable attention for their choreographed post-game win celebrations for their home fans. Players did this completely on their own. The celebrations’ notoriety grew after Canadian television hockey analyst Don Cherry criticized the celebrations and called the Hurricanes “a bunch of jerks.”
Waddell had T-shirts made that say “A Bunch of Jerks.” More than 10,000 have been sold.
“We have shirt orders from 49 states,” Waddell said. “Someone from Wyoming needs to buy a shirt.”