March Madness … It’s Back. Kind of.

Am I going for the easy layup this week? Yes. It’s March. The month of layups. And threes. And upsets. In other words, it’s among my favorite months of the year. The shorter/original version of this blog can be found at JSJ Builders, one of the new home communities I write for, courtesy of Martin Communications in the Triangle area. I’ve altered it for my own blog use.

A funny thing happened last month when the Carolina Hurricanes hosted an NHL Stadium Series game. As seems to be the norm, there were many who questioned the Triangle’s ability to host such a massive sporting event with success – either financially or operationally – including the NHL itself. After all, the outdoor hockey game would require the transformation of an expansive college football stadium into a professional-grade ice rink with three times the seating of the team’s regular arena. 

The Hurricanes originally requested to be included in the Statium Series half a decade ago. I’m sure it sounded crazy. A city well in the geographical south hosting an outdoor game that required … ice? And wasn’t this city also located in that sweet spot on the east coast where temperatures flip from high to low for the entirety of winter? 

Right. Ice. Outdoors. In North Carolina. 

It’s no wonder that the NHL balked. Weather aside, there is still a very incorrect assumption that this biscuit and sweet tea loving area couldn’t possibly really understand hockey. Sure, maybe decades ago. But today? Well, biscuits and sweet tea aren’t the only things this region loved.

*For those who don’t live within cheering distance of this sports-obsessed area, there is often a misunderstanding of just how passionate its residents are for all things athletic. 

For those who do live in central North Carolina, it is truly sports heaven.*

Never doubt the ability of a Southerner’s ability to nag. Finally, after years of asking, Raleigh was granted a date for a Stadium Series game at the start of 2020. Yes. that 2020. One could almost hear the sigh of relief when the season (and that elusive game) was halted as players traded mouthguards for masks. In the words of Uncle Roy, gosh diddly dang It. 

This week, as March stretches its legs, Raleigh is still accepting accolades (and probably apologies from those doubters) as it comes off its high of finally hosting that Stadium Series Game. Nary a complaint? Well, not exactly. Those who attended on behalf of the Capitals had loads to say. I suspect the unhappiness about parking or zany tailgating setups stemmed from a deeper issue: lack of goals. 

For those seasoned with the treks of Tobacco Road, the game was bliss and the perfect appetizer to March Madness. 

Tobacco Road? Tobacco Road is often thought to reference the rivalry between the basketball teams of the University of North Carolina and Duke University but the term actually has a much broader history. Prior to 1956, the term referenced the “big four” of UNC, Duke, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest University. The schools were located within 25 miles of each other, sharing the same competitive conferences and consistently challenging one another for bragging rights. 

Though Wake Forest moved to Winston-Salem in 1956, the rivalries have remained firm as the tally of national championships has risen above 75 between the big four, across multiple sports. See, Tobacco Road was never meant to be strictly about basketball. That’s probably why it was so easy to insert a professional hockey team to the sports mix.

And while stands across central North Carolina are packed with supporters year-round, March Madness is typically considered the highlight of the sports year. While the basketball season comes to a close for many teams across the nation, the Triangle greets tournament time enthusiastically (mayhaps not this year, but tomato/tomahto). It is not uncommon for restaurants and bars to be packed mid-day during the conference championships as appointments and meetings are canceled in preference of pompoms. Teachers and professors offer leeway as assignments are brushed off in favor of bracket analytics. Bedtimes fly by in hopes of catching a latenight upset. 

And when the NCAA Tournament begins? All hopes of productivity are tossed as Triangle residents buckle down to watch games from noon to midnight for days and weeks in a row. Yes, the focus will always be on its hometown teams, but this area’s love for the big tournament also sends fans scurrying to select secondary teams to urge through the coming rounds. This is a place that loves the underdog and many fans latch onto their own Cinderella in the early games.

It can present a bit of a cultural shock for those new to the area. Imagine unpacking your moving boxes in the midst of March Madness. Where are all the people? Why all the crowds around televisions or laptops? What the heckle is a viewing party and why must I pick a team when applying for my driver’s license? 

I think back to my first year in the Triangle in 1998. Granted, part of the reason I selected North Carolina to transplant my roots was because I fell in love with the fandom when visiting my parents in Chapel Hill. They had relocated while I was in college and my spring breaks often fell smack dab in the middle of the ACC Tournament. I knew I was heading to basketball country, I just didn’t have a firm grasp on how passionate residents were for all sports – basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse, etc … and, then, for hockey. I was among many that remembers the days of the Raleigh Icecaps, the minor league team that served as the appetizers for the Whalers move south and transformation of the city into the land of Caniacs.

Yes, this year’s basketball post-season will likely look a bit different for many fans of the famed Tobacco Road. Nothing wrong with that – win some, lose some (no actually, it really hurts). But perhaps that’s why this sports heaven was gifted with an NHL Stadium Series game at just the right time. Perhaps the gods knew that we needed a little gift to carry us through what may be a long, sad month.

PS: For those hockey naysayers? The entirety of over 55,000 tickets was sold out in less than five minutes. The city turned the game into a week-long event with concerts, an alumni game, a wild Caniacs tailgate, and a lot of complain-y Capitals fans. Yes, a slam-dunk. But we’re used to that.

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