Hockey Road Trip: Tobacco Road Tumble

26 April 2018

When we set out to do all these hockey road trips, I always had my eye on North Carolina - I knew very little about the state (besides its tobacco-infused history), but it always seemed like a hotbed of sports success. Expansion teams in the NFL and NBA arrived in Charlotte at the dawn of the 1990’s, which set the stage for the NHL’s Hartford Whalers to relocate to Raleigh in the latter part of the decade.

But college basketball is the dominant obsession, as the region is filled with notable programs from Duke and the University of North Carolina, to NC State and Wake Forest. Hated as they may be in the eyes of many sports fans, I’ve always felt a fondness for Duke. Coach Mike Kryzezewski has built one of the most storied programs in the country, consistently keeping his team near the top of the polls and funneling a pipeline to the professional ranks (even though NBA success has often eluded these players). My high school years were filled with the images of Grant Hill and Christian Laettner winning championships for the Blue Devils, and the sight of Duke fans boisterously cheering on their beloved team during home games at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke’s campus in the city of Durham is just down the highway from the state capital of Raleigh - this path is affectionately referred to as “Tobacco Road”, denoting the popular crop produced by the state. I knew that my trip to see the Hurricanes would HAVE to include a visit to Duke, so I specifically focused on the college basketball schedule each year. Unfortunately, given the popularity of the program and the fact that virtually all of the tickets are reserved for students and season ticket holders, I would have to pay an exorbitant price to see them in person. For conference games against their ACC rivals, Duke tickets would go for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market - as a result, I found a non-conference game at the beginning of the schedule that allowed us to see the Hurricanes the following night.

One added bonus: my cousin Courtney was attending graduate school at North Carolina State, and had offered to give us a tour of Raleigh during our visit. But she would complete her two-year program in the spring of 2017, which pushed this trip a little higher up our list and prompted a visit in November 2016. And away we go!


As you might imagine, I had a tough time finding a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Raleigh, so this day was mostly spent in between airports and planes (with a layover in Houston).  When I finally arrived that evening, Courtney picked me up at the hotel and took me to a famous watering hole near the NC State Campus: Mitch's Tavern.  It had the perfect "college bar" vibe, filled with a large amount of students (for a weeknight even) - it also holds a special place in my heart as it was one of the filming locations for my favorite sports movie, Bull Durham.

My dinner was a delicious bowl of gumbo, as well as my first-ever "baked sweet potato" with honey, raisins and walnuts.  It had been several years since I'd seen Courtney, so we used the evening to catch up and update each other on our lives, before she took me back to the hotel to rest up for the night.


My travel companion Chad had just started a new job over the summer and had very few vacation days, so he took a red-eye flight and arrived at the hotel on Friday morning.  He barely had enough time for a quick shower before Courtney arrived to take us out for the afternoon.  The first stop was lunch at Neomonde, a wonderful Mediterranean bakery/restaurant, which provided us with the necessary fuel for a walking tour of the popular JC Raulston Arboretum: Courtney was majoring in horticulture, and made it a point to show us around this famed garden on campus.

After a nice stroll through the pleasant surroundings, Courtney dropped us off at the hotel and we hopped in Chad's rental car for the 20-minute drive to the Duke campus.  We arrived in the late afternoon, and spent a couple of hours slowly walking around the scenic grounds of the historic university.  As the sun set, the basketball fans descended upon Cameron Indoor Stadium for the evening's festivities.

The Blue Devils entered the game as the #1 ranked team in the nation, and there was definitely a stir on campus before this regular season opener.  The opponent would be Marist College, a private liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, New York, whose notable alumni include political commentator Bill O'Reilly and former NBA All-Star Rik Smits.  Sadly for the Red Foxes and their handful of fans who made the trip down the coast, they would be no match for the mighty Blue Devils, who scored the first 12 points of the game and took a 26-point lead into halftime.

With the score being so lopsided, we used the second half as an opportunity to walk around inside the arena, which is also home to the Duke Basketball Museum and Duke Athletics Hall of Fame.  It was a real treat, as the arena itself feels like a museum and visitors can definitely sense the history that has taken place inside its walls.  After standing in the overcrowded courtside section for the first half, we found some comfortable seats in the upper level where we could watch the rest of the game, since many fans had departed with the outcome no longer in doubt (Duke would eventually cruise to a 45-point victory).

We then left the campus and ventured into Durham, wrapping up the night in Brightleaf Square with a late-night dinner at the Satisfaction Restaurant and Bar - a great hangout and the kind of place that makes me miss being in college.  One more day to go, and it would start early.


Our final day in Raleigh was a full one, starting with an early trip to the North Carolina Museum of History.  I'm always interested in learning about the specific states when I visit them, and this museum provided a rich and detailed history of The Tar Heel State, with exhibits devoted to the agriculture and military heritage of North Carolina.  Additionally, the third floor of the museum is home to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, which included some hockey-related artifacts amongst its vast collection.

From there, we walked across the street to take a self-guided tour of the North Carolina State Capitol, a fascinating landmark that harkens back to a bygone era of one of the original Thirteen Colonies.

Statue depicting the three US Presidents born in North Carolina: James K. Polk, Andrew Jackson & Andrew Johnson

One of the two legislative chambers inside the State Capitol
As dusk began to settle in, we grabbed a quick bite and headed over to PNC Arena: as expected, there were plenty of hockey fans tailgating outside in the parking lot, including an entire busload of people who had come down to cheer for the visiting Washington Capitals.  By arriving so early, we were able to spend plenty of time walking around the premises - both inside and out of the arena - and enjoying the southern hospitality and charm.

Of course, I had to get one important photo-op before the game started:



Much has been written about the low attendance numbers for Hurricanes games, but this Saturday night featured a very loud and raucous crowd ready to cheer on their beloved team and taunt their longtime divisional rivals from Washington (their closest geographical opponent in the NHL).  Though the Caps would get on the board first with a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov, the home team would quickly tie the score and then take the lead going into intermission thanks to goals from linemates Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen (both assisted by the anchor of their line, center Jordan Staal).  The pace was frenetic and the action was hard-hitting!

The rest of the game saw little relief for Washington, as they had no answer for Carolina's top line: Staal would add a goal in the second, and Aho would deliver the death-blow late in the third, as the Hurricanes breezed to a 5-1 victory.  Staal and Teravainen would each finish with a goal and three assists, while Aho added an assist to go with his two goals - the members of this line would be named as the Three Stars of the Game as well.

I also couldn't leave the arena without sampling some of the amazing BBQ that was available, and I was not disappointed in the least - gotta love that famous vinegar-based sauce that North Carolina is known for!  It was a rather quick trip, but definitely enjoyable and I certainly hope to return to the South again soon.  Until then...


Sadly, I was unable to find a shot glass in the PNC Arena team store, so I went to the Lids website: though they're known mostly for hats, Lids also sells a large amount of memorabilia emblazoned with various team logos, and I really liked this particular souvenir:


We embark on a frigid journey to the Eastern seaboard, including stops in two of the largest cities in America, as well as a magical land full of delectable sweets...

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