Taking the Hurricanes by Storm

Hang on, hockey fans. Change is on the way.

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by Kurt Dusterberg
Photo courtesy of Carolina Hurricanes

Tom Dundon was introduced as the new majority owner of the Carolina Hurricanes on January 11th, and he arrived with a decisive strategy, despite a few anomalies. He’s new to town, lives a few states to the west, and is new to the game of franchise ownership. Dundon, the chairman of Dundon Capital Partners, a Dallas-based private investment firm, has never owned a sports franchise. He describes himself as “not a hockey guy.” But with a diverse business career and the instincts of a serious sports fan, he feels well suited for the challenge. He grew up attending NHL games in New York, and he has close ties to the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, including a friendship with team owner Mark Cuban.
    So when Dundon began pursuing ownership of the Hurricanes last fall, he was alarmed by what he saw at his first visit to a home game. “I came to the game and it didn’t look like what I would want it to look like,” he says. “If I’m going to be involved, I have what I consider the right way to do things, and this isn’t it.”
    The Hurricanes once enjoyed a lofty place on the Triangle sports landscape. When previous owner Peter Karmanos Jr. brought the team here from Hartford, Connecticut, in 1997, the Hurricanes endeared themselves to local fans. They reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, and won the NHL’s championship in 2006. Carolina’s neophyte fans were quickly the envy of the hockey world, and became widely known for tailgating at play-off games and—memorably—standing throughout Game 7 of the Finals in 2006.
    Since then, however, the Hurricanes have made just one play-off appearance, in 2009. Their current eight-year post-season drought is the longest among NHL teams, and attendance has sagged to the bottom of the league.
    The continued losing is an obvious problem, but Dundon is taking a first-things-first approach. Already, he has tinkered with endless small details to enhance the fan experience. For Carolina’s game on January 30th, he allowed all ticket holders with upper-level seats to move down to the lower bowl of PNC Arena. The decision was good for the fans and good for the game atmosphere. And in February, the Hurricanes offered a nine-game pass beginning at $97—less than the cost of one game for many lower-bowl seats.
    Dundon says he will also insist on players having more interaction with the fans. Already the team has adopted a new procedure for taking the ice at the start of games: Rather than walking directly from the locker room, the players now enter through a “fan tunnel,” and more personal connections are on the way.
    “These are young, fascinating people who have made it to the top of their profession,” he says. “As people [get to] know [the players], that’s how we will make them fans. What’s realistic is to gain an emotional attachment to these really talented, committed athletes.”
    However, the changes won’t stop there. He has repeatedly suggested that the Hurricanes will be “best in class” when his changes are put in place. And that includes the arena as well as the community engagement. Eventually, a state-of-the-art scoreboard will be installed above the ice.
    “It’s just taking the time and effort, and investing the money and the attention to detail, to get to that level,” the 46-year-old owner declares. “If people are going to spend their money, they should get value for it.”
    Fans will appreciate all of the cosmetic changes, but Dundon knows that putting a winning team on the ice is critical to the mission. During his four-year tenure as general manager, Ron Francis has stuck to his plan of drafting and developing players who will make Carolina a regular play-off participant. So far, it’s still a team under construction. The Hurricanes lack the stand-alone stars that most play-off teams have. That’s an issue. Those players are sometimes available by trade or through free agency, but the Hurricanes have rarely had an appetite for making a splash.
    That could be changing.
    “I’m not patient,” Dundon told the gathering at his intro-ductory press conference in January. “It’s not going to work for me to be patient.”
    So Hurricanes fans will have plenty to watch in the off-season. The new owner’s mission will reach every corner of the franchise.
    “I’m never happy with the way we do things,” Dundon said. “Getting a bunch of people—whether it’s players, coaches, or people on the business side—to enjoy that process, that’s probably the hardest thing about this. I’d prefer to be accountable. I know we’re not going to do it all right the first time. If you’re willing to mess it up, and fix it until you get to the best outcome, I like that process.”