The Carolina Hurricanes have never been afraid to go their own way in recent years.
They did it to fun-loving effect with the postgame Storm Surge celebrations that spurred Don Cherry into calling them “a bunch of jerks” and then cleverly used that as a part of their marketing campaign.
It was Carolina just this past season that vaulted David Ayres into legendary EBUG status when he went from Toronto Marlies Zamboni driver all the way to cult hero after becoming a winning emergency goalie against the Maple Leafs.
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Along the way they’ve built themselves into a solid Eastern Conference hockey club that made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final last season and were poised to secure a wild card spot when the 2019-20 regular season went on pause almost three months ago.
And that’s where the issues come in with “the bunch of jerks.”
The Hurricanes were one of only two NHL teams that voted “no” on the return to play proposal that was overwhelmingly approved last week with 24 teams qualifying for a postseason that includes a play-in round to get things going.
It was certainly a vocal, passionate discussion among the player reps on last week’s NHLPA call with some preferring a modified “finish the season” option that would have seen the teams all play a handful of games to determine the bubble playoff spots in question.
The other team to vote “no” was the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had issues with the intensity of the games the top seeds will be warming up with while the 5-12 seeds play a do-or-die play-in round to determine the final eight playoff teams.
There’s a legit gripe in there that the top seeds will be mired at a lower compete level once the “real” Stanley Cup playoff rounds commence following the play-in round.
But it sure feels like the Hurricanes are coming at it from a place where they felt like teams like the Panthers, Canadiens and Rangers don’t deserve to be in the postseason at all. Carolina’s player rep for the NHLPA, Jordan Martinook, said as much when talking with reporters this weekend about the NHLPA vote from the Hurricanes.
"For where we were and where our team thought we could get to, it hurts our odds,” said Martinook on a Zoom call with reporters. "It's not like we didn't want to play or anything, it's just that we felt this particular option maybe didn't benefit us and it's not gonna benefit every team. This is just the stance that we took. (This format) doesn’t really benefit the teams that are in 5, 6, 7 and 8 so it kinda hinders those teams. Then it obviously gives a lot to 9, 10, 11 and 12. It didn’t really benefit our team in any way."
What Martinook fails to mention is that the Hurricanes were just two points away from being the “9, 10, 11 or 12” teams themselves when the season went on pause. The Hurricanes were a bubble team in a wild card spot when things went on pause in mid-March, but they were also just a couple of points ahead of the teams they now say are being gifted a playoff spot with a month of regular season games left to play.
Honestly, teams like the No. 3 seed Penguins, Maple Leafs, Dallas Stars or Calgary Flames have a whole lot more to complain about now that they have been tossed in with the rest of the NHL riff-raff of wild card hopefuls and bubble team invites. It would have been more meaningful if any number of those teams had been the ones raising concerns rather than a wild card bubble team that’s going to benefit greatly with some key injured players now presumably healthy enough to compete.
It feels like pretty weak sauce that Carolina was the one doing the complaining about the format.
But none of those higher seed teams wavered when it came time to vote to return to play and instead did what was best for the league as a whole rather than continuing to haggle on a play-in format that’s never going to be perfect, or without its detractors.
To his and Carolina’s credit, Martinook admitted as much while discussing the team decision for the Hurricanes.
"It's going to be good for the game. It's going to grow the game. It's going to keep a lot of fan bases in it and we want to do anything we can to keep people excited in the times that we're in," said Martinook. "We're not looking past that. We want the NHL to do the best we can, and we want the players to help the world and give people something to rally around.”
The Hurricanes might say they were voting “no” for the benefit of everyone across the league, but Martinook himself said the play-in format “hurts our odds.” It hurts Carolina’s odds because now the 'Canes are now forced to win a play-in, best-of-five series to make the final 16-team playoff field, and they have to do it against a dangerous Rangers team that defeated them all four times they met during the regular season.
How much of it is actually about Carolina players being pissed they now might have to beat a Blueshirts team in the playoffs that had their number during the season? The Hurricanes players would tell you it’s got nothing to do with their play-in match-up, but this humble hockey writer finds that fairly hard to believe.
We’ll never really know for sure as 29 other NHL clubs voted “yes” to the proposal and voted “yes” to getting back to the business of hockey sooner rather than later with a Phase 2 return to the ice expected to happen in the next few weeks. That’s all that really matters now that the NHLPA vote is in the rear-view mirror and the league has released a 21-page memo detailing the care it's going to take in returning to play NHL games.
The bottom line: We’re not ready to call the Hurricanes “a bunch of jerks” for the way they voted over the weekend. But maybe Grapes wasn’t all that far off the mark when it comes to a Carolina team that proves time and time again they do things their own way.