'Strange, but true': 20 years later, 'BBC' line stars reminisce on improbable Canes run to finals

29 May 2022

— The 2001-2002 version of the Carolina Hurricanes had no business being three wins from the Stanley Cup.

At that point, they were just a few years removed from playing in front of sparse crowds at the Greensboro Coliseum, where a curtain regularly draped off much of the upper level seating.

But the spring of 2002 brought the infancy of terms like “Caniacs” along with the team’s unofficial introduction to the pro sports consciousness, expanding the area’s pallette to go beyond college basketball and NASCAR.

Before fans wore “Bunch of Jerks” shirts, there was “BBC” wear – representing now coach Rod Brind’Amour, and forwards Bates Battaglia and Erik Cole. All three still live in Raleigh and were part of moments that still echo in franchise history.

The fan favorites embodied a physicality in the game that isn’t as prominent now. The trio represented the plucky team that came from under the surface and into the hearts of the region still feeling its way into the sport. For fans, certainly winning was fun, but the underdog role made it easy to get behind even if you weren’t as familiar with the game’s intricacies.

The team had to rely on old-fashioned elbow grease and a penchant for aggression to create their own luck along with a relentless attitude fostered by the hard-nosed Brind’Amour.

Youngsters guided by veteran’s leadership

As little as he knew about North Carolina, Battaglia, a Chicago native, came to the state with the Hurricanes in 1997 at 21. He said he was just glad to be playing professional hockey, but the logistics around the first two seasons brought difficulties. Back then, PNC Arena was just a big mess of construction behind Carter-Finley Stadium.

Support was inconsistent as the Greensboro Coliseum was sometimes dubbed “green acres” for all the empty seats at games.

“You get tired of driving to Greensboro 41 times a season,” Battaglia said. “The fans wanted to be fans but at the same time, they knew we were leaving.”

Brind’Amour was then a 31-year-old center known for winning faceoffs and being a zealot for working out. The Ottawa native stayed true to a strict, no-nonsense diet and workout routine that stayed consistent throughout the regular season and playoff schedule.

“He worked out like a maniac,” said Battaglia, who added Brind’Amour wasn’t as much into the nightlife scene as some other players. “He would come and hang out, but he didn’t drink much at all. I can’t say the same for myself or [Cole]. His diet was pretty strict. He was fish, chicken, rice, no salt, vegetables, it was pretty straightforward.”

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Brind’Amour was eventually named a captain before the 2005-2006 season, months before the franchise’s ultimate moment in winning the Stanley Cup.

The “BBC” line contributions live on through Brind’Amour. A big part in the franchise’s progress from the just happy to be there attitude of the early 2000s and expectations of competing for championships in recent seasons is due to him. Brind’Amour was recently asked if there was a time when he thought he’d never win the cup, which was a real possibility at that point in his career.

“When we lost in ’02 in Detroit, I remember sitting here, going ‘wow, that might have been it right there,'” he said. “I was getting older at that point … thankfully, that wasn’t it, but you never know.”

Cole, then in his rookie season, didn’t have grandiose expectations for himself, but the team clearly knew he was ready and he lived up to the moment. He entered his first training camp the year prior expecting to make the roster, but didn’t. The next year, a new urgency appeared in his demeanor and that extended itself to the ice.

“When I came into training camp in 01-02, I was very determined and I played that way,” Cole said. “I had to play that way.”

Cole had a commendable rookie year, scoring 16 goals and getting 24 assists. His sister moved to the Triangle in the mid ’90s, so he was familiar with the area and used that to his advantage in pre-draft interviews with the team. General Manager Jim Rutherford selected Cole in the third round in 1998. A largely veteran roster showed Cole the ropes and intangibles that were necessary to be a steady pro.

Cole started the year playing alongside Brind’Amour and Martin Gélinas. Battaglia joined the picture for a game in Dallas around Thanksgiving and the three played together on-and-off for the rest of the season. Coach Paul Maurice and staff liked the mix and boost to the depth. Although creating open space was hard for everyone except maybe Sami Kapanen, their ability to throw their weight around and force turnovers led to scoring chances.

“That gave us three lines that could score, for the three of us, a lot of it was communication on the bench,” Cole said. “We kind of took Roddy’s leadership of being relentless on the other team.”

Maurice, then the youngest coach in the league at 35, came under fire in early December amid a four-game losing streak that dropped the team to 12-12-4. But by the end of the month, they were 20-13-5 and gaining steam as a contender.

In 2002, players like Kapanen and Battaglia had their best seasons and Jeff O’ Neill led the squad in goals for the third-straight year with 31. Kapanen, the lone Hurricanes All-Star selection, won the fastest skater competition at the skills challenge and hit career highs in goals (27) and points (69). Hall-of-Famer Ron Francis, then 38 and in his 21st season, still put up 27 goals and 77 points. Goalie Artūrs Irbe, also nearing the end of his NHL career at 35, was instrumental in keeping them in games.

They went on to beat three teams who finished with more points in the regular season en route to the finals.

Not tied down

Despite the mix of youth and veteran contribution, the team was about as under-the-radar as you could get. The Southeast Division champions were dismissed as beneficiaries of a weak division and scored as many goals as they allowed (217).

There was one oddity – the Hurricanes played to a league-high 16 ties that season, which were still common in the pre-lockout, shootout-yielding NHL. The team became so known for ties that fans threw neckties on the ice when they snapped a stretch of seven consecutive ties at home, a league record. They also had the least wins, 35, of any division winner. The Philadelphia Flyers had the second-lowest wins total for a division winner at 42, still comfortably ahead of the Hurricanes.

Bates Battaglia

Ties still earned teams a point in the standings, so that served as a consolation prize, but players didn’t want to take solace in not winning.

“For us as players, a lot of it was ‘alright we’re still gaining points, we’re not getting the results that we want, but we’re still getting points,'” Cole said. “It was frustrating for that stretch.”

The Washington Capitals finished second in the division and actually had one more win than Carolina. The Canes’ first-round opponent, the New Jersey Devils, finished third in the Atlantic Division and still had more points (95). By way of winning the division, the Hurricanes garnered the No. 3 seed in the east, but few expected them to get past the first round.

“Going into the playoffs, I don’t think a lot of people saw us as a big threat, but for us and the confidence level that we had in the room, we knew we were a good team,” Cole said. “For us, it was a real big boost to get past New Jersey, and I think that kind of exorcized some demons from the previous year, especially.”

The Hurricanes narrowly missed the playoffs in 2000. They eked out a couple of wins against the top-seeded Devils in 2001 as the eight-seed, a noteworthy feat given the Devils were defending cup champions and jumped out to a 3-0 series lead. New Jersey was the first-round opponent again in 2002, starting a rivalry that spanned the rest of the decade.

In Game 1, Brind’Amour and Cole scored goals in a 2-1 win. In Game 2, Cole scored in the second period to tie the game and Battaglia scored the overtime game-winner in a redirect from a shot from defenseman Marek Malik. After two losses in New Jersey, the late Josef Vašíček scored the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 5, made possible by Kevin Weekes’ acrobatic pair of saves in the extra period. Weekes came up with a shutout in Game 6 to guide the Canes to their first playoff series win since the franchise moved to North Carolina.

“When it came to the New Jersey series and we were able to have a little bit of success early on, I think that boosted our confidence level as a trio,” Cole said. “As a team, we could help take some of the load off of our top guys and Ronnie and Jeff and Sammy. It made us a much more dangerous team.”

Carolina Hurricanes Lose Last Home Game 5-1 Against Buffalo Sabres

The series win, combined with top-Seeded Boston going down to Montreal and Ottawa knocking off No. 2 seed Philadelphia, suddenly opened doors to possibilities that seemed outlandish weeks earlier.

Montreal and Hart Trophy winner José Théodore loomed in the second round as the Canadiens were also riding high off a first-round upset.

The BBC line continued to flourish in the second-round playoff series against the Canadiens, as the three scored 10 goals between them in six games. None were bigger than the tallies netted by Battaglia and Cole that set up the Molson Miracle, a Game 4 overtime win that saw the team rally from a 3-0 deficit with three goals in the final period to even the series at 2. After Sean Hill’s powerplay strike to get the Canes on the board, Battaglia scored to make it 3-2 with a little more than seven minutes left and momentum was building.

The Canes pulled Irbe for the man advantage and Cole got the serendipity needed from Battaglia and Francis to tie the game in the final minute. Amid a scramble for the puck in the crease, Cole muscled himself into some open space at the side of the net and buried it.

“I was able to pull it away before Théodore even saw it, I almost mishandled it for a quick second, I couldn’t believe that it was there.”

Niclas Wallin swished a wrist shot from the back of the face-off circle to complete the comeback. Games 5 and 6 were runaway victories and suddenly the team’s foot was on the gas entering the conference finals. For the first time, the Canes felt destined for something special.

Strange, but true

There was no love lost in the third-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which featured three overtime finishes. The Maple Leafs had former Hurricane Gary Roberts and defenseman Bryan McCabe, who were determined to cancel out Cole.

“The head-to-head with Robs was a lot, we went at each other really, really hard.” said Cole, who described spitting up blood in the locker room during a series-clinching Game 6.

The teams split the first two games in Raleigh with Wallin scoring the deciding goal in overtime of Game 2. It was actually O’Neill who had the most emblematic moment of the team’s postseason, scoring the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 3 with a black eye after taking a puck to the face in regulation.

When Gélinas scored the series-clincher in Game 6, ESPN play-by-play announcer Steve Levy captured the bewilderment of everyone at the Air Canada Centre and hockey fans in general.

“It’s strange, but true, folks. The Carolina Hurricanes are going to the Stanley Cup Finals,” Levy said.

No one gave Carolina much of a shot against a Detroit team that boasted a litany of all-stars and household names like like Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Sergei Federov, Nicklas Lidström, Chris Chelios and Pavel Datsyuk. The Red Wings carried double the payroll of the Hurricanes and took command with a double-overtime win in Game 3, ending Carolina’s good fortune in postseason overtimes. Games 4 and 5 were basically controlled by Detroit, who won its third cup in six seasons.

In the end, the right mix of circumstances behind great netminding, an effective defense and just enough goal-scoring sent the team on an unlikely run against a trio of “original six” franchises.

“We just outworked teams,” Cole said. “We were a little bit of meat and potatoes and every now and again, we’d mix in a pretty goal.”

The intensity and fervor that accompanies a deep postseason run strengthened the team’s bond with the Triangle. Even though it didn’t end with a trophy, the overachieving group helped make strides in growing the game in a new market. While sellout crowds at PNC Arena and use of the phrase ‘the loudest house in the NHL’ are common now among fans and media, the 2002 playoff run should be acknowledged as playing a vital role in all that coming to fruition.

“It was the most fun I ever had playing hockey,” said Battaglia, now 46 and a Canes season ticket-holder. “Playoffs were amazing. Every step of the way, it just got more and more exciting.”

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