If the proposed sale of the Carolina Hurricanes from Peter Karmanos to a group led by attorney Chuck Greenberg goes through, there will be a number of areas where the new owners will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact. Under Karmanos, there has been some deferred maintenance in the market, especially when compared to other non-traditional hockey markets like Nashville and Tampa Bay.
The Predators are the driving forced behind new ice sheets throughout middle Tennessee, while new Lightning owner Jeff Vinik – a Duke graduate – has pushed development in the area around the team’s arena and just announced plans for a $6 million practice rink.
So what could the Greenberg group do, quickly, that Karmanos has not?
1. Build a new practice rink. The Hurricanes have been practicing in what’s now called Raleigh Center Ice since 2000 and built a locker-room facility there, but it falls far below what are now NHL standards. There are longstanding discussions to partner with developer Jeff Ammons in a new multisport facility in the RTP area, with groundbreaking expected soon. Even if that proceeds as planned, it would still be at least a year or two out.
Former Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford once said, upon some reflection, that the team might have been better off building a bare-bones, 10,000-seat arena that it could convert into a practice rink instead of spending the two difficult years in Greensboro.
A new facility, whether in partnership with Ammons or someone else, would not only help attract free agents and retain current players – an essential consideration in a salary-cap system – but, with a critical shortage of ice sheets in the Triangle, help youth and adult hockey as well.
2. Help grow hockey in the Triangle and North Carolina – at all levels. The Junior Hurricanes program has created new opportunities for local players but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what could be done and what needs to be done. More involvement with youth and adult leagues and supporting the construction of new ice sheets (as the Predators have) would make a huge difference for hockey in the area.
Not only are today’s young players (and their parents) tomorrow’s season-ticket holders, the increasing number of NCAA players from the Triangle is an indication that there’s room for considerable growth – just like non-traditional areas like California, Florida and Arizona that got NHL teams before the Triangle. Karmanos’ personal involvement and financial support has paid huge dividends for youth hockey in Detroit, but it has been almost entirely absent here.
It’s also possible, if unlikely, a new ownership group could help endow an NCAA program in the area, like Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula did at Penn State. College Hockey Inc., the sport’s advocacy group, sees this area as ripe for long-term growth because of the roots put down by the Hurricanes and the natural rivalries in the Triangle.
3. Figure out the arena situation, one way or another. PNC Arena has generally aged well, but as it approaches 20, it’s finally starting to show a few signs of wear compared to its newer, higher-tech peers. That’s less of an issue than the development that never happened around the arena. In an era when downtown arenas play key roles anchoring entertainment destinations, PNC’s location is an anachronism – alone, marooned among parking lots, with a single restaurant within walking distance. It’s a good set-up for tailgating, an essential part of the franchise’s DNA, but lacks the critical mass that downtown arenas in places like Nashville and Washington create.
There are two ways to fix this. One is to upgrade the arena itself – as the Centennial Authority has pursued for the south side of the building – with bars and restaurants that give fans additional pre- and post-game options. A new ownership group could also potentially broker deals to develop other entertainment options nearby.
The other is to break ranks with the Centennial Authority and N.C. State and build a new Raleigh arena downtown or near North Hills, two areas that North Carolina FC has looked at for a potential MLS stadium. That would be a significant capital expense and require considerable foresight, but it’s the kind of long-term investment in the franchise and market that isn’t feasible with Karmanos’ finances.
4. Rebuild bonds with the community. Despite many promises to move to Raleigh on at least a part-time basis, Karmanos has always remained in Detroit. The franchise made its greatest inroads in the Triangle when Jim Cain, a Raleigh lawyer, was team president. (Remember “Friends of the Canes?”) Then marketing and outreach stagnated during the several years when Rutherford served as both president and general manager. Now, Don Waddell has faced the difficult task of rebuilding those bonds as an outsider at a time when the team has not been competitive.
If the deal goes through, Greenberg is expected to move to Raleigh and serve as the public face of the team, a part of the job he handled with aplomb when he ran the Texas Rangers. He will be a partial outsider – he does own a minor-league baseball team in Myrtle Beach – but having an owner who is engaged in daily face-to-face contact with Triangle business leaders and influencers would make a huge difference, just as it has for North Carolina FC since Stephen Malik purchased that franchise.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock