If we're going to be perfectly honest about this, packing the lower bowl of PNC Arena full of fans didn't have a huge impact on the way the Carolina Hurricanes played in the third period. The atmosphere was better than it would have been with the fans spread throughout the building, but not decisively so.
For one thing, the Hurricanes were building toward their strong third throughout the second even though they fell behind at the end of that period. The two goals were coming anyway, especially against an opponent like the Ottawa Senators that long ago fell off the postseason pace: Beat them or join them, basically.
And for another, there's only so much you can do with less than 12,000 fans, which is what this team, in this moment, is going to draw on a frigid Tuesday night against Ottawa. But that's also why this particular night was chosen for Tom Dundon's grand experiment on this very unusual evening. Inviting everyone from the 300 level down to the good seats only works if there are good seats still available down there. And there were: center-ice seats and corner seats and club seats and suites, all parceled out to fans who would have otherwise been in the Uecker seats.
“You want the fans to have a good experience and be as close to the ice as possible to create that buzz,” Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said. “It looks like we're making strides to make the experience a lot better for the fans. As hockey players, if we win hockey games, that also creates a buzz too.”
There were enough season-ticket no-shows – again, not uncommon for a frigid Tuesday night against Ottawa, even in the salad days – to give the lower bowl a gap-toothed look, but all but a few hundred die-hard upper-levelers took up the team on its open offer to move down, including the notorious noisemakers from Section 328 who took up residence in Section 123. Things did get louder than they would have been in the third, even if no amount of fan migration could have salvaged the first two sleepy periods. What's the point of trying to fill up the lower bowl if there's nothing to get loud about?
Would Joakim Nordstrom, after failing to draw a penalty, have proceeded to run that opponent through the end boards without the volume of frustrated boos from the fans? Maybe, maybe not. But that big hit was followed quickly by Sebastian Aho's welcome-back goal that made it 1-1 and the Victor Rask power-play game-winner. It's a game the Hurricanes should have come back to win anyway, but the crowd-crunching couldn't have hurt.
“I thought it was good,” Jeff Skinner said. “I thought there was definitely more life. A nice sign, I think. We've got a few home games coming up here so hopefully we can string a few wins together and keep them coming out.”
So the homestand got off to a good start, the first of eight straight and 11 of the next 12 at home in this make-or-break February. This doesn't figure to be the only gambit Dundon, still in his first month as majority owner, tries. From his perspective, the general rationale is “Why not?” and given the franchise's recent history it's hard to argue. That extends to everything from ticketing to the second-ever playing of “Brass Bonanza” within these walls Tuesday.
In the future, Dundon expects to have a high-tech ticketing system that will deliver fans to unused seats dynamically, the same way an airline does. For now, inviting the upper bowl to come on down to the lower bowl is the best the Hurricanes can do.
“I've talked to a bunch of these fans and walked around and there's so many people that are appreciative,” Dundon said. “That is, I think, part of it. They feel good about it. That's been fun. I don't notice that there's not as many fans up there. I saw a game early in the year where there were just not many people here and I didn't like that. This is better than that. I'm happy that we did it. I'm happy with the way it worked out.”
This does carry some baggage with it, namely the potentially hurt feelings of the lower-bowl season-ticket holders who have been pumping thousands of dollars into the franchise for years, especially on nights like this when no one else might show up, and were increasingly squeezed for every nickel, only to have the seats around them Tuesday filled for a fraction of what they paid.
“I get it, right? I've talked to a bunch of them,” Dundon said. “For the most part, what I've heard is I'd rather this than an empty arena. That's probably 80 percent. But there's whatever, 10, 20 percent that wants to know what they get, and I do too. It's a fair question and I'm thinking about it, a lot.”
Since the Hurricanes won, it's probably something they'll try again at some point during this homestand, if there's another game where the advance sale is low enough. The crowds going into the break, dating back to the Buffalo game last month, have actually been pretty good – partly because attendance typically rises at this time of year, partly because the team showed promise in December, partly because of optimism surrounding the ownership change. If the Hurricanes can put a run together, there are enough ticket promotions running this month that they might fill the lower bowl without resorting to dipping into the 300 level.
Perhaps most important Tuesday night, the upper-level black curtain – and PNC, like the Greensboro Coliseum, does have one – remained furled, avoiding the unnecessary rehashing of any collective nightmares among the fan base. Instead, the fans in both the lower and upper bowls all went home with a win, observed by many from better seats than they might have been expecting, part of an experiment with inconclusive results for a franchise no worse off for giving it a try.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock