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In Hurricanes’ Hartford homage, a very un-Whalerslike comeback

Carolina Hurricanes’ Teuvo Teravainen (86) and Sebastian Aho (20) on the ice for warmups prior to their game with the Boston Bruins, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
Carolina Hurricanes’ Teuvo Teravainen (86) and Sebastian Aho (20) on the ice for warmups prior to their game with the Boston Bruins, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Coming into the game 14-15-5 was enough homage to the Forever .500s, as a Boston columnist once (appropriately) dubbed the Hartford Whalers. Going down 2-0 to the Boston Bruins in the first nine minutes was probably taking it too far.

The difference between then and now – yes, one of many differences between then and now – is that the Whalers never seemed to come back when that happened.

The Carolina Hurricanes, wearing the undead uniforms of their abandoned past on Sunday in this tribute game to the borrowed nostalgia of the unremembered ‘80s, to borrow a lyric from the unremembered aughts, actually did. Which was good, because it would have been a surly crowd instead of one that partied its way through the 5-3 win to an equally retro playlist, and not merely “Brass Bonanza.”

There was something unavoidably surreal about seeing those jerseys back on the ice, the psychic dislocation that comes from watching something happen your brain accepted years ago wasn’t possible. Like seeing man walk on the moon, except the man was a guy in a faded green Pucky the Whale costume and the moon was a place that, for hockey purposes in 1997, might as well have been lunar.

The Hurricanes did everything they could then to sever ties to their Whalers past and here they were, almost 21 years later, doing everything they could to leverage them.

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Dougie Hamilton (19) skates during warmup prior to the start of the Hurricanes game with the Boston Bruins, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker) Associated Press

The building was crowded and loud – more than the Hartford Civic Center could ever hold – and the lines for Whalers merchandise were long and lucrative. The former might have had more to do with the Hurricanes’ comeback than the color of their uniforms; on most other Sunday evenings, the home fans would have been drowned out by the usual Bruins contingent. Not so on this one.

If that was the case, the decision to delve into the team’s history came at a good time. This team has been on the ropes for a month, never more so than after the losses to Detroit and Pittsburgh over the previous three days, and the boisterous environment couldn’t have hurt. If the Hurricanes were running short on anything (other than, you know, goals) it was emotion, with patience worn thin and frustration piling up, and it was impossible not to get caught up in Sunday’s retro shenanigans.

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Putting Andrei Svechnikov with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, the opposite of retro, didn’t hurt either. Only Teravainen was even born the last time these jerseys were worn, and he was 2, so that line wasn’t inspired by childhood memories as it generated two goals at even strength while Aho and Teravainen combined for two short-handed.

So many of these players are too young to remember the Whalers, let alone understand why their jerseys are such a big deal.

“Not really,” admitted Petr Mrazek, who picked up the win wearing pads with Jason Muzzatti’s old design. “But I like it.”

The jerseys go on hangers until March, when they’ll be worn in Boston in what couuld really be a scene, and the Hurricanes have five days before they have to get back to the real work of winning games in their real jerseys. They’ve been looking for a turning point, any kind of positive momentum to build upon, and this could be it.

Maybe delving into their past will give them a shove toward a new future.

Because it’s important to remember that as beloved as the Whalers were, it’s still a franchise that won a single playoff series in its entire existence. Despite the drought, even as it threatens to extend to a decade, the Hurricanes have won more and done more in Raleigh than the Whalers ever did in Hartford. At one point, the standards were higher here.

And if the Whalers jerseys can get back on the ice in an NHL game, as improbable as that once was, there’s no reason the Hurricanes can’t get back in the playoffs. There was a time when one would have seemed far more unlikely than the other.

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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