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Past Is Evident as Hurricanes Move Into Future

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GREENSBORO — Even as they moved forward Thursday night, the Carolina Hurricanes were still reminded of their past.

The Hurricanes held the first-ever NHL playoff game in their new state, drawing a raucous sellout crowd of 11,059 to the Greensboro Coliseum - including several fans from the franchise's old hometown of Hartford, Conn.

As the puck dropped to start the game against Boston, the crowd of red, white and black-clad Hurricanes supporters was speckled with some fans wearing the green, blue and white of the Hartford Whalers. That group included Mike Garilli, who drove 11 hours from his home in Hartford, the city that the franchise left two years ago for North Carolina.

``I had season tickets for many years,'' Garilli said, shaking his head. ``I'm glad to be here, but it's kind of sad, too. It's just not the same.''

Garilli got some sympathy from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who also was on hand to watch the franchise's first playoff game in seven years.

``I think the Whalers' fans have to view this moment as bittersweet,'' Bettman said in an interview during the first intermission.

But Bettman said he remains confident in the overall health of the franchise, which has been plagued by poor attendance in Greensboro for two seasons while the Hurricanes' new arena is being built in Raleigh.

``The Carolinas are truly hockey country, just as is the rest of the Sun Belt,'' he said.

Evidence of the Hurricanes' support came Thursday night in the form of a nearly 200-car caravan of fans who made the 75-mile trip to see the game.

It's a trip that many people in Raleigh have been reluctant to make while they wait for the expected completion of the new arena this fall. And the fans in Greensboro have been hesitant to embrace a team that is only a temporary resident of their arena.

Compounding the matter has been the region's longtime allegiance to college basketball. A 55-foot-long trophy case in the Greensboro Coliseum's north concourse has 39 exhibits, all of them related to great moments in college basketball, including North Carolina State's triumph in the 1974 NCAA title game in the building.

Hockey is mentioned nowhere in the trophy case.

Out in the seating bowl, however, it was a different story. The fans spent much of the game standing and chanting, and they found some creative ways to express themselves. One woman tied a rope around a Teddy bear's neck, tethered it to the end of a hockey stick and adorned it with a sign that said, ``Bruins Must Die.''

Bettman wasn't about to take sides, except on the issue of seeing the relocation of the Hurricanes succeed.

``We knew this would be a building process, but we knew this would work,'' he said. ``It just takes time.''