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A plan comes together: How the Storm Surge goes from idea to ice

The texts show up midday, in the long yawning nap gap between pregame skate and pregame warmup. On the Saturday afternoon of Feb. 16, it was 1:10 p.m. when Justin Williams sent a group text to Mike Sundheim and Pace Sagester, who handle media relations and team services for the Carolina Hurricanes, with a request that would at one point have been considered bizarre but in this very strange season seemed totally normal.

“Right after Viking clap we need this to play in the arena. Can you guys make it happen?” Williams texted, with a link to Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock.”

Sundheim: “Haha yep”

Sagester: “That’s easy”

That night, after a shutout win over the Dallas Stars, the song played as the Hurricanes did the limbo as the latest iteration of their postgame Storm Surge. Stormy, the mascot, went last – and failed, as scripted that day in another text from Williams.

While the Hurricanes have captured continent-wide attention for their celebratory antics, not to mention focused disdain, the origins of their celebrations are more organic and the logistics more informal than anyone might have imagined. The path the celebrations take from their collective mind to the ice immediately after a win – and there is one prepared for every game, even the losses – isn’t always a straight line, but they get there somehow anyway.

“I’d like to tell you it’s a big system we have and everything, but basically we get our ideas, we load them up, we think them through over the pregame breakfast, and if there’s anything that we need – we think it would be better with lighting – then we’ll get (Sundheim and Sagester) involved,” Williams said. “But as good as we look out there, how organized we look, there’s not too much to it. At the same time, you still want to make it look good, have people know what we’re doing out there so they’re not like, ‘What is this?’”

In the beginning, and most of the time even now, the players just went ahead and did it, without assistance. The texts only started in January, once the celebrations started to get more complicated and intricate. Stormy gets instructions. The “Bunch of Jerks” celebration, the response to commentator Don Cherry’s outrage, required 20 T-shirts and specific lighting. Evander Holyfield needed boxing gloves.

All of them have originated within the locker room, without any marketing advice or assistance, with the exception of last Friday’s appearance by Holyfield, when Sundheim told Williams in advance that Holyfield would be in attendance and might be willing to participate.

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Former professional boxer Evander Holyfield joins the Carolina Hurricanes’ on-ice celebration after the Hurricanes defeated the St. Louis Blues 5-2 on Friday. Gerry Broome AP

Even then, the specific execution – Holyfield entering the ice lit by a single spotlight, Jordan Martinook getting “knocked out” – came from the players, although there was an afternoon scramble for the gloves. Stormy had a pair as part of his props, and another employee – Marie Bobalik, the team’s senior manager of corporate partnership services – boxes recreationally and happened to have a pair in her car.

For Sundheim, a two-decade veteran of the organization, and Sagester, this is only peripherally included within their job descriptions, on the team-services side of the ledger. That normally extends to travel, team meals and generally assisting with whatever players might need. The celebrations fall under the latter.

“Mike and I would have a few ideas, and we’d throw them out, and sometimes they’d incorporate it and sometimes they wouldn’t,” Sagester said. “Where it really started was the Stormy stuff. Stormy was kind of lost out there a few times, and we asked if they even wanted Stormy out there. Willy would tell me how they wanted to incorporate Stormy, and we’d tell Stormy. Now, it’s ‘We need this projection’ or ‘We need this amount of shirts.’ It’s become a whole web.”

Some, like the dominoes-falling celebration, require players in specific positions on the ice. Brock McGinn is the players’ artist-in-chief, and some of his diagrams have become almost architectually complex as the celebrations have become more intricate – an unexpected consequence of all the winning the team has done in 2019.

And plans to continue.

“All right Willy, you’ve already said too much,” Micheal Ferland interrupted, but couldn’t resist adding: “Me and ‘Faulker’ (Justin Faulk) got a good one coming.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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