Rod Brind’Amour spent the last decade of his NHL playing career in Carolina, leading the team to a Stanley Cup in 2006 as captain.
After retiring, he became an assistant coach and continued to make his home in Raleigh, N.C. At the same time, he wanted to become a head coach, but not for just any team. He wanted to stay where he was, so when the Hurricanes’ head coaching position came open last season, it was natural he put his name forward.
“For me it was time to either get a chance to be a head coach, or do something else,” he said in an interview while back in Campbell River for his annual fundraising golf tournament. “I was OK being an assistant coach, I liked it.”
What perhaps was not so natural was how he guided the team, which had missed the playoffs for nine seasons, to 10 more wins and back into the post-season. Once there, they made it to the Eastern Conference finals. He was pleased not simply at making the playoffs but with how the team made it.
“We had the second-best record for the last half of the season,” he said. “That was an impressive run to even get in the playoffs.”
Once they got there, they swept both last year’s champs in Washington and the New York Islanders, before losing to the Boston Bruins in the eastern finals. The win over the Capitals stands out in particular.
“Probably one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “That series was very special…. There was so much emotion.”
The success this year has helped raised the profile of the team in Raleigh and the area.
“It’s got us back on the map in our community,” he said. “Now, we’ve got to take that next step.”
Another thing that helped get the team back on the map has been the team’s “Storm Surge” – the choreographed post-game win celebrations. He chuckles over the way the team’s Storm Surge took off, especially after broadcasting legend Don Cherry called the team “a bunch of jerks” in response.
“It blew up because of ‘Grapes,’” he said.
Brind’Amour said the celebrations were never intended for the media or as a message to opposing teams, who would be back in the dressing room after games, but simply something fun between the players and the fans.
The origin went back to last August when he talked to team captain Justin Williams, a former teammate, about the need to do something to engage fans in North Carolina again and get more people to come to the arena. There, hockey can get lost among other sports.
Brind’Amour remembered seeing players celebrating with fans when he briefly played in Switzerland and thought it might work in North Carolina. It did. He recalls how the Hurricanes were up 5-0 in one game, and in the last few minutes, instead of fans heading out early to beat the traffic, they stuck around to see what the players were going to do.
“I couldn’t believe how well the fans took to it,” he said. “That was to the players’ credit. They just kept finding something different to do. I don’t know where it goes. That’s going to be a whole other thing.”
Brind’Amour doesn’t necessarily see himself as a “career coach.” Coaching today is different from when he was playing, especially with the growth of analytics, and while this is part of the process, he admits, it plays more of a back-up role, simply providing another lens to see the game.
“It definitely has come into the game. Everyone is using it,” he said.
He is nicely settled in Raleigh with his family. When he was growing up, his only exposure to North Carolina was on TV seeing Michael Jordan plays college basketball for UNC Tar Heels, or the famed North Carolina State Wolfpack upset win in the 1983 NCAA championship. Funnily enough now, one of his good friends is Sidney Lowe, the point guard for that championship NC State Wolfpack team, based in Raleigh.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever think that that’s where I’d be actually playing,” he said.
For the Carolina Hurricanes now, the bar has been set higher. From here, he knows next season for the Hurricanes will not be easy, and even the off-season will require work to sign players, so 2018/19 is really only the starting point for what Brind’Amour wants the team to achieve.
“It’s always tough in this league right now,” he said. “Everyone’s getting better. We have to get better.”