City of Raleigh ready to rock All-Star Weekend

By John Manasso  - Correspondent

RALEIGH, N.C. -- A fever pitch.

That's the way Doug Warf, the Carolina Hurricanes Senior Director of Marketing, described the anticipation among team employees and the city of Raleigh for the NHL All-Star Weekend once the calendar turned to January.

Much of that, he said, was spurred by team captain Eric Staal being voted one of the captains along with goalie Cam Ward being named to the team for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover, and rookie Jeff Skinner earning a spot in the Honda NHL SuperSkills competition.

The Hurricanes and the city's business community first started discussing the possibility of hosting the All-Star Game almost 10 years ago, said Scott Dupree, Vice President for Sports Marketing with the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau and a co-chair of Raleigh's local organizing committee to host the game.

So in a very real sense, the game represents the culmination of a decade's worth of work and preparation and the city is doing its best to make the events memorable for the 40,000 to 50,000 visitors expected to attend.

"There's a clear sense that Raleigh's on the brink of something special," Dupree said. "We're really trying to make an impression and roll out the red carpet. This is a big deal for us."

Among the events is a two-day street festival, stretching seven city blocks, that will take place Friday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Crowd estimates for what is being called NHL All-Star Wide Open top 50,000.

Each day will be headlined by a free concert at the Raleigh Amphitheater. The band "Three Doors Down" will play Friday and Saturday will feature up-and-coming country artist Chuck Wicks.

"It's great," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. "There are local people that have been working on it and setting up the special functions and they have done an outstanding job. Everybody's excited about it and we have a history of being good hosts here for different sports, everything from the U.S. Open to the NHL Draft to college basketball.

"The '04 Draft here was very successful. The building was full, the fans were excited. They made it an exciting day, an exciting week for people and people will appreciate the fact that the All-Star Game is hosted here."

The Research Triangle -- named after the neighboring cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill -- is known for its rich basketball history. In 2004 and 2008, Raleigh hosted rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament at the RBC Center, which is home to both the Hurricanes and the North Carolina State Wolfpack.

Part of the reason Raleigh had to wait so long to finally land the All-Star Weekend was that it did not have the infrastructure for an event of this scale. That changed starting in 2008, when three new hotels and the city's new convention center opened.

Three of the six hotels used for the event -- the Marriott City Center, the Renaissance North Hills and the Umstead Hotel and Spa, a five-star property in nearby Cary -- have opened within the past three years. The Raleigh Convention Center, which will host the NHL Fan Fair, and the Marriott City Center, which are connected, both opened in the fall of 2008. The convention center was built at a cost of $221 million.

"Those shortcomings have been addressed," said Dupree, who chaired the local organizing committee, along with Alison Barnwell of the Greater Raleigh Sports Council. "That tipped the scales and made it so Raleigh clearly would be able to host."

Being able to host the event also has helped the Hurricanes' bottom line. The franchise has made two trips to the Stanley Cup Final since 2002, winning in 2006, and a third trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009, helping create a solid fan base. Still, the Hurricanes often fight the battles of an organization located in a smaller, non-traditional market.

By enabling season ticket holders to purchase All-Star Game tickets, the Hurricanes received a financial boost.

"The timing of it was good for us because we missed the playoffs last year and the fact that we host the All-Star Game really helped us increase our season-ticket base," Rutherford said.

Enthusiasm for the game was such that the Hurricanes did not have to conduct a public sale of tickets. Their allotment, approximately 8,000 tickets, went to season-ticket holders and demand has exceeded supply, Warf said.

Normally an anonymous figure, Warf said he recently did an interview on local television. Walking back through the concourse of the RBC Center, he estimated that 40 people stopped him with questions about jerseys and other things.

"People are thirsting for knowledge about every event that's out there," he said. "We're getting hammered (with phone calls). 'How can I get into this? How can I see this?' It's great to see how excited people are. Tickets sales are through the roof for this event. Season-ticket holders have taken up all the events. There are more who want tickets. We never had to go to a public on-sale.
"It's a great testament to the hockey community here in Raleigh."