Old Memories, New Experiences: Old Memories

Old Memories, New Experiences: Old Memories

By Chris Cole

January 13, 2019

I'm spoiled by how close I live to PNC Arena, home of the Carolina Hurricanes.  A ten minute drive in fact. Sadly, busy work and life schedules mean that I only see the Canes play a handful of times a season.  Yes, I know they have been playing for the wooden spoon more than they have for the Stanley Cup in the past decade, but hey, it's NHL hockey and as they say: you don't know what you got till it's gone.  The luxury of having an NHL team right down the road was not always there when I was kid, but there was pro hockey down the road right next to the would-be site of PNC Arena: the Raleigh IceCaps of the East Coast Hockey League at Dorton Arena located inside the North Carolina State Fairgrounds.

I recently attended hockey games for the NC State Wolfpack and the Fayetteville Marksmen and it brought back some memories of when I was a child and the Hurricanes weren’t in town.  As much as I want to tell you why those recent games meant a lot to me, I believe there is a need to delve into the past before we get into the present.

Old Memories

August of 1991 is a landmark year for my family and I.  We had moved from Niagara Falls, Canada to Morrisville, North Carolina which at the time had a population of around 2,000, now it's around 26,500.  At the same time a professional hockey team was starting their first season in Raleigh for the East Coast Hockey League by the name of the IceCaps.

Dorton Arena was the home of the IceCaps which was the logical, and also odd location for them to play. Logical because it was an arena that could seat a little over 5,000 and hold a full size sheet of ice, but odd because well... look at it:

Another crazy thing to consider is that the original owners of the IceCaps, Miles Wolff and Pete Bock, had no idea how to run a hockey team.  In a 2011 interview with Wolff he said "Pete and I didn't know much about the sport, either.  One day, a few weeks before the season started, he came to me slightly panicked, and said that we needed to buy paint for the ice right away. 'What do you mean, paint for the ice?' Apparently, in hockey, the ice gets painted... we had no idea."

The ice wasn't exactly well maintained inside the Arena either due to a handful of reasons, mainly because the arena had so many windows that the sun light would melt the ice from time-to-time.  There were a few instances from when I was a kid that the bantam and midget teams my dad coached would have a game in Dorton postponed or cancelled because the rink effectively became a pond. I did get to play one game on that ice when I was in squirts playing for the Carolina Lions.  We won, and during the game some kid puked on the ice. Those were the times!

From 1991 until 1998 the IceCaps were the pro hockey scene for people in Raleigh.  As a kid I saw a lot of their games and even have a few pucks that flew over the glass during games.  Here are three memories that stood out to me from those times:

  • I once ran from my seat in the corner and beat another kid to a puck that was directly behind him in their "luxury" seating (it was a couch on a platform directly behind one of the goals).
  • Skating with the IceCaps after one of their games.  My grandfather, visiting from Canada, was skating with one of the players and just chatting about junior hockey or about Canada in general.  Canadians love to talk to each other about where they are from when they come across each other in the States. I was being a goofball and tried to spray one of the IceCaps with snow and got the very same treatment a few moments later.
  • A scuffle broke out between the IceCaps and another team which resulted in a helmet flying high in the air.  I can't remember if it landed back on the ice or into the first couple rows of seats.

During the seven seasons that the IceCaps operated in Raleigh they made the playoffs four times (the 1991-92, 92-93, 93-94, and 95-96 seasons) and made it to the Kelly Cup finals once, losing to the Toledo Storm in a 4 games to zero sweep to conclude the 1993-94 ECHL season.

What Happened to the IceCaps?

Short Answer:

The Carolina Hurricanes

Long Answer:

In 1997 the Hartford Whalers moved down south to North Carolina to become the state's first NHL team the, Carolina Hurricanes.  While this meant the people of North Carolina will now get to see the stars of the NHL come to their backyard, it had an immediate negative impact towards the local minor league hockey teams in both Greensboro and Raleigh.  

Dorton Arena is both too small and old to host a NHL team so a new, modern, and bigger arena needed to be built.  What resulted was the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena, aka the ESA (now PNC Arena), but that building did not open until the 1999-2000 NHL season.  This meant that the Canes would need to play to the closest arena that could meet NHL standards which was an inconvenient drive from Raleigh to Greensboro as the Canes played in the Greensboro Coliseum for their first two seasons in Carolina before moving to Raleigh.

Before the Canes became tenants of the Greensboro Coliseum it was being used by the Carolina Monarchs of the American Hockey League.  The Canes and Monarchs came to an agreement that the Canes would take over the Coliseum as the sole hockey team in the building and the Monarchs would move out of state, become the Beasts of New Haven, and become the AHL affiliate of the Canes.  Greensboro would lose a hockey team, but also gain one. However, once the Canes moved out from the Coliseum and to the ESA there would be no professional hockey team to occupy the arena and that is still the case to this day.

For the IceCaps, since they were located right next to the new arena, the owners knew they wouldn't be able to stay in business as a business competitor to an NHL team.  Knowing that the Canes were coming soon affected attendance figures too. Prior to the Canes move from Hartford the IceCaps would average 4-5,000 people per game, but in the season before they stopped playing in Raleigh they had an average of around 1,600 people per game.  Hedging their losses the team moved from Raleigh and down south to Augusta, Georgia to become the Augusta Lynx, a nod to the fact that Augusta is the location of the Masters. Top-tier hockey in North Carolina came at a big price: one big league team and the lost of two minor league teams.

You can follow the author on Twitter: @HockeyNC