Raleigh would relish seeing its only professional sports team grow as quickly as it has in recent years.
The Carolina Hurricanes’ sale Thursday to Dallas businessman Thomas Dundon is the first time the team has changed hands since it came to Raleigh in 1997, when the city was about 200,000 people smaller than it is today. Local leaders hope Dundon’s promises to shake things up will bring more of the city behind the Hurricanes, whose attendance ranks 30th out of 31 NHL teams.
Peter Karmanos Jr., the Hurricanes’ majority owner, indicated in recent years that he was seeking to sell his majority stake in the team.
Empty seats at PNC Arena, where the Hurricanes play their home games, led some to speculate that a new owner might move the franchise – perhaps to Quebec.
But John Burns, a member of the Wake County Board of Commissioners and an avid hockey fan, echoed the NHL brass’s insistence that a move was never seriously considered.
“I’ve been assured repeatedly by people in the organization that there was never a question of the team moving,” Burns said. “This market was too good for the future of the NHL. The attendance issues are related to them not winning consistently – it’s no indication that the market itself is the problem.”
Burns compared Dundon’s style to that of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a friend of Dundon’s. Cuban’s reputation for treating players well allowed him to woo high-caliber players to Dallas. Burns also said Wake County itself has the potential to be a recruiting asset for the Hurricanes.
“From what I understand, players come here and stay here,” Burns said. “There are a lot of retired NHL players here, in Cary and in Raleigh.”
Raleigh Councilman Corey Branch, a native of the city, acknowledged that the team has always faced an uphill battle for attention against the area’s bevy of successful college sports programs.
“But I think with the new owners, there’s definitely a chance and opportunity to broaden the scope and exposure of the team to all parts of the city,” Branch said.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane said she’d like the city to work more closely with the Hurricanes’ management than it has in the past. She recalled the team’s 2006 Stanley Cup run and how that season brought the city together behind the Hurricanes and said there was more the city and team could do to help each other out.
“We’re obviously very excited they’re planning to stay because they are a huge part of this city,” she said. “The team is an economic asset, yes, but they’re also a big part of our identity.”
North Carolina FC owner Stephen Malik said he has already met with Dundon and came away impressed.
“I’ve had some conversations with him because I’m thrilled we’ve got a guy who’s going to ramp up the professionalism and commitment to pro sports here,” Malik said. “I found the guy to be energetic and definitely somebody who wants to win.”
As for potential synergies or partnerships between the two franchises, Malik said he foresees opportunities there as NCFC pursues an MLS expansion bid.
“I think there’s lots of things we can do together,” he said. “Some of that is obvious to everyone, isn’t it?”
Governor Roy Cooper, a hockey fan himself, also praised Dundon’s decision to invest in the Hurricanes.
“The Carolina Hurricanes are a valuable economic asset to our state, and Mr. Dundon has made a wise choice in buying this team and keeping it here,” Cooper said in a statement to the N&O Thursday. “I’m ready for Stanley Cup playoff action.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan