Southern comfort

RALEIGH, N.C. – They got back here amid their cauldron of red and found a fan base willing to forget, willing to roar still, willing to lift what were supposed to be their tired legs and shaken pride.

Back here amid the love and the loud, the Carolina Hurricanes found that their stubborn confidence made sense and that their unbending loyalty was justified. Then they went out and found the best damn game of their lives.

By the end, long after they had risen as they played Springsteen's "The Rising," there were tears and beers, hugs and kisses, Rod Brind'Amour handing the Stanley Cup to Glen Wesley, two old hockey pioneers who somehow, for some reason, always believed that hockey would work in this old Tobacco town that, in turn, always believed right back in them.

Carolina 3, Edmonton 1, angst avoided, a collapse averted after much of the hockey world had given up on the Hurricanes after their Game 5 collapse and a Game 6 no-show had given the Edmonton Oilers hope and momentum.

But back here, back home, all the bad memories and all the weak play just washed away amid waving flags, twirling towels and 20,000 Southerners screaming their lungs out.

That pregame surge of energy changed this series as much as any Brind'Amour shot, any Wesley pass or any Cam Ward clutch save, pushing the 'Canes into a tone-setting goal just 86 seconds into the game, giving them a lead they never relinquished for a Stanley Cup they never will forget.

"There's no question we got an emotional charge from it," 'Canes coach Peter Laviolette said.

Maybe Carolina fans are too new to panic. Maybe the absence of a big-city media kept the negativity at bay. Maybe it is just the nature of this pleasant region. But on a night when many towns would expect the worst, Hurricanes fans provided the perfect storm surge, a thunder of pure devotion.

There is a natural reaction to be skeptical of the fans in these Nuevo Hockey cities, to write them off as bandwagon jumpers who would trade what happened here Monday for an NCAA basketball title at one of the local schools.

But that lift came right from a devoted group, the ones who bought in immediately when Peter Karmanos moved the Hartford Whalers to Dixie in 1997 and held an introductory press conference in a lowly tent because the RBC Center was nothing but a blueprint. Those same fans drove an hour and a half to Greensboro for the first couple of years. The few, yes, but still the ferocious.

"Oh, it was a long road coming from Greensboro, you know, having six, seven thousand people in the stands," said Wesley, the 18-year veteran and only former Whaler still on the team. "But hard-core fans supported us. Just incredible fans."

No, this isn't some old Original Six city. No, this isn't Edmonton, where the sport is generational. But these fans, proud and loud, couldn't have done more to help the 'Canes deliver the first major professional championship in state history.

"I don't think they sat down all night," Laviolette said. "I don't think they stopped yelling the whole game."

They didn't, except in those final minutes when Edmonton mounted one of their relentless rallies and everyone but Cam Ward was too nervous to speak.

In a champagne-soaked locker room, with Lord Stanley being passed around amid the spray, the players all spoke about those fans, old and new. Then they spoke about their fathers and their kids, their teammates and the turmoil and the incredible way that in the face of what would have been a historic meltdown, the Hurricanes just toughened up.

"After Game 6 Roddy (Brind'Amour) stood up in the locker room," Wesley said. "He said that we were like glue; we had to stay like glue. Nobody ever wavered or doubted what we were capable of doing.

"Game 7 in our building, there was no way that we were going to lose. No way. Every single guy in the locker room, there was never a doubt. Never a doubt in anyone's mind."

Brind'Amour didn't want to talk about his role, naturally. That would make one player bigger than the others, and that isn't Carolina's way. Even Ward, the 22-year-old rookie a month from his wedding day who was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner as MVP of the playoffs, looked like he didn't know what to do with the trophy.

Instead of discussing pep talks, Brind'Amour, his eyes wet and swollen, talked about everything else, everyone else – "there's so many people you are thinking about that are pulling for you," he said. He went on about all those years with Wesley, nursing injuries, dealing with failed seasons, dreaming of this very moment.

Then he spoke about the relief from releasing the fear of letting a golden opportunity at that silver cup go by.

"Since Game 5 there was a great big lump in my chest," he said softly. "I have been feeling it. There after Game 6, I just kept thinking there is just no way we can let this go. There's too many guys that deserve this."

And so that was the secret. When the struggles got greater, so did the Hurricanes' resolve. When the fingers could have been pointed, Carolina just formed a tight fist.

In the end, it allowed the Hurricanes to match the very qualities that Edmonton had ridden for two heart-stopping months, to figure out the secret to finally derailing the Oilers.

In the end, this improbable franchise in this unlikely location, driven by this surging fan base, changed the karma and rode it to glory.

In the end, they all screamed deep into the Southern night, cried into one another's shoulders and basked in the collective joy that none of them, not a player, not a fan, ever doubted was possible.