Monday, December 28, 2009

Hockey Mom Chats with Fellow Hockey Mom Blogger for Canes Country

In the spirit of the holidays and world peace, Hockey Mom is joining forces to bring you an inside look at tonight's visitors to the Verizon Center, the Southeast Conference rival Carolina Hurricanes.

In the past two seasons that I've been penning my "musings", I've had the good fortune to meet all kinds of terrific hockey fans and media types covering our wonderful sport. Some are even avid fans of other teams, including the puck-crazy gal I'm spotlighting today!

Carolyn Christians is a regular contributor to Canes Country,
the most well-read and respected new media outpost in Caniac Nation. She is also a fellow hockey mom, who is all too familiar with early morning practices and logging countless miles on the family vehicle with funky hockey gear in tow.

So to prelude another meeting with the Hurricanes, please help me welcome Carolyn, who writes under the pen name "HockeyMom of 2."

HM: How did you become such a big hockey fan? When did you start following the Canes?

CC: My family moved to North Carolina in March 2003, a season when the Canes finished at the dead-last bottom of the NHL, following their Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the Red Wings, in 2002. (fast forward 7 years: sound familiar?) It wasn’t until after the lock-out that my boys and then, through their contagious enthusiasm, I myself, became totally committed Caniacs. (I grew up in love with the New York Yankees in the 70’s, the Cleveland Browns in the 80’s and with 3 big brothers have always enjoyed the culture and language of sports.)

That amazing Stanley Cup win in 2006 captured all of our hearts. My boys (now 9 and 12) started playing in 06, and I found that the whole hockey culture here was about as much fun as I’ve had as a parent. The Canes are so accessible in the community, and my boys have had several on and off-ice experiences with the Canes players and families (including playing against some of their kids pretty regularly and sitting with the dads in the stands); this two-way interaction (my kids playing on the NHL ice with the team at the RBC and their kids playing on our youth hockey rink) certainly makes the team feel like one of us.

HM: The Canes have had a tough year this year with injuries and a very tough start? How have the fans reacted? What do you see for next season for this team?

CC: To say this year has been disappointing for the Caniac Nation barely scratches the surface of the fans’ mood. No one saw this coming after making to the Conference finals last year with almost the same roster. Some of it can be blamed on key and devastating injuries, but most would say the poor showing went beyond that. The top-to-bottom collapse has been attributed to the aging roster and the seeming lack of hunger from our well-paid vets. However I think the main issue the fans have faulted was lack of leadership within the team, and less conclusively from the coaching staff. This element is an unknown for next season and the fans openly discuss who they want to see take over the Captaincy when Rod Brind’Amour, now age 39 retires. The assumption is that it will go to Eric Staal, though the other 2 names you hear are Ray Whitney, who will be 38, or the new emerging favorite, Tim Gleason. Ruutu and Sutter for the A also are suggested.

I think the 14-game winless streak sealed the deal for most fans that there would be no post-season this year. And that was in early November. There was initially a lot of anger and sadness in fan comments and radio conversations. I even put up a “grieving poll” on the Canes Country to see how the fans were feeling – encouraging all to move into acceptance and look forward without regret – such was the universal reaction. Interesting side note is that this shock has prompted a huge uptick in traffic on our blog as fans seek answers and perhaps a “safe place” to commiserate. There is no doubt now that Raleigh is unquestionably a strong and committed hockey market.

HM: The Southeastern Conference rivalry between the Caps and Canes has always been pretty heated? Do you think the Gleason/Ovechkin incident did anything to fuel the fire from a fan’s perspective?

CC: I think when you’re at the bottom of the NHL it becomes difficult (a little ambitious?) to really feel a rivalry with any team. As fans, we’re devoting this season navel-gazing and re-building. The Gleason/Ovechkin incidents, where Ovechkin was suspended for his knee-to-knee hit, was much bigger story to Caps fans than it was to us.

Gleason, as I said above, is a fan favorite and as Coach Maurice said “Timmy is about as much of a meat and potatoes guy as there is”. Gleason’s return after taking the puck in the face to score the first-of-his-career short-handed goal last time we played in Washington will go down permanently in the heroic lore of the franchise.

On the other hand, Ovechkin is in a class by himself and I don’t think he is regarded as an extraordinary villain in the rivalry; the Caniacs might have players they really hate, but Ovie would not make the top 5. Even our #2 goalie Manny Legace has said AO is one of his two favorite players he loves to watch play, with Brodeur being the other.

HM: How did you get involved with Canes Country? How often do you write? Do the Hurricanes grant press credentials to bloggers? I think women provide such a unique perspective to coverage of this very testosterone-infused sport. How do you approach writing about hockey?

CC: I began reading Canes Country in Spring 2008 when the Canes surprisingly and with the loss of the last game of the season just missed the playoffs (the Caps won the SE in their first season under Boudreau you’ll remember) and I was looking for information beyond the little blurbs in the newspaper. I didn’t have confidence to post until last Spring (it was during the series with the NJ Devils and Jokinen’s 00.2 sec GWG). I then began posting in the comments pretty regularly over the summer as the team excitedly planned for another great season to follow up on the amazing pair of 7-game series we’d seen in the playoffs in the Spring.

The Manager of the Blog, which is part of the SBN group, like Caps’ blog Japers’ Rink, asked if I could take on a more official role, primarily responsible for assembling the news clippings posts. I post a couple times a week and usually try to add commentary that helps readers to interpret or appreciate the importance or relevance of the story. I also like to add some humor or video that makes the pieces more engaging. I did a couple of related analytical pieces on the high number of uncharacteristic penalties the Canes were taking in October, but as my kids are playing so much now, my time is more limited.

Bob Waeghe, the Canes Country founder does have press credentials, but those are hard to come by for bloggers in the Hurricanes market. I believe he is alone, in fact. Management remains skeptical that bloggers are responsible enough as journalists to give them access, and Bob is very appreciative and takes this opportunity very seriously.

My perspective isn’t all that different from the men who write really. I am more comfortable on certain subjects than others, but I’m not sure that’s about being female, or just different point of view. I may be more “people” focused and think of the players like they were my little brothers when thinking about what motivates them and how they approach their game.

HM: You are also a hockey mom – tell me about your experience and the special insight it gives you into the big boys’ game!

CC: It gives me a special passion in love of the game for its most basic levels, not simply as a spectator sport. I mentioned the boys numerous direct contact with the Canes players and their kids which makes the team seem so much more like me and people I know – not icons on a pedestal.

HM: What do you think are the Canes’ strengths/weaknesses this year?

CC: Interesting question – because our strengths are so inconsistent that in fact it is the inconsistency that is our biggest weakness. We have some incredibly strong “character” players, who are inspiring and so worthy of admiration for both their smarts and skill. And we have a few veterans who can’t seem to find their mojo this year. When your leadership breaks down it seems the whole team follows, until new leaders emerge. But that is hard to know with certainty unless you’re “in the room” as they say.

Within the games, the most glaring weakness is lack of confidence. With the least adversity the team has collapsed over and over again often giving up 2 or 3 goals in a matter of minutes, so that “fragile” became the most often used term. When you’re talking about NHL hockey, that’s not the word you want to be hearing about your home team.

Coach Paul Maurice is not the most admired man in Raleigh either. However most fans blame the players not him for the dismal season and, given what he accomplished December through May of last year, are willing to give him another season to show what he can do.

HM: Your favorite Hurricanes players and why?

CC: We as fans are very excited about Brandon Sutter, son and nephew to the seven Sutter brothers (his father is Calgary Flames coach Brent). He has shown skill, intelligence, energy and leadership far beyond his 20 years of age and way beyond what was expected him when he was drafted in 2007. I suspect a lot of #16 jerseys were found under many a tree this Christmas.

We love our Finns! Forwards Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen and D-man Joni Pitkanen. They show heart and commitment and leadership when the more standard household names of the franchise disappear. You will see more Ruutu jerseys at Canes game than Staal now. We’ve changed the opening line of the Anthem to “Oh say can JUSSI!”, and Pitkanen’s taking up with other offensive Dman Joe Corvo out till February is phenomenal – 30 minutes a game has become typical. Team Finland will have many fans in North Carolina when they play in Vancouver.

Last, Tim Gleason has emerged this season. His no-nonsense total-body-commitment never-quit play and no-excuses straight-forward no-cliché interviews make him hard not to love. A classic line from him after a tough loss: “That’s what happens when you suck.” As I said, he is the dark horse for the Captaincy when Brind`Amour retires.

HM: And of course I have to ask: What’s your take on tomorrow’s game?

CC: All you have to do is look at the NHL standings to see how this one is clearly under the heading “David vs Goliath”, but lately we’ve seen how the Canes get up for the big ones and make them exciting. As Canes fans, you just never know which team is going to show up, even from period to period. So we focus on the achievements of key players and watch what the Coach is doing to motivate the players and find chemistry. For instance, our perennial topline center Eric Staal has been playing 2nd and 3rd line wing the last couple games. It’s fascinating to watch and evaluate these adjustments, and you can probably understand why as fans, we focus more on these facets of the game rather than the W-L and the standings.

So many thanks again to Carolyn - HM hopes that my sons' travels take us to a rink down in Canes Country someday soon so that this hockey goddess and I can share our stories in person! For an in-depth preview of the Caps/Canes contest from the opponent's point of view, be sure to check out Canes Country!

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