Red and Black Hockey
by David Lee on 05/03/09 at 01:18 PM ET
May 3 is a sad day for the Whaler/Cane franchise. For that matter, also the Red Wings and Flames. Given the Hurricanes opponent in the Eastern Conference semis, it’s impossible to ignore the historical significance of today’s date. Today is the tenth anniversary of the tragic death of defenseman Steve Chiasson.
After the Hurricanes were eliminated by the Bruins four games to two in the 1999 Eastern quarterfinals, the players flew home, then had a wrap party at Gary Roberts’ house. This went on well into the wee hours of the morning. A very intoxicated Chiasson made a terrible decision to drive himself home, declining rides from teammates and taxis. He never made it. Around four in the morning, his truck flipped over, killing him instantly. ...
Chiasson’s time with the Hurricanes was brief. He was drafted by and played eight seasons with the Red Wings. In the summer of 1994, he was traded to Calgary in exchange for goaltender Mike Vernon. There, he played alongside Cory Stillman, who, like Chiasson, was raised in Peterborough, Ontario. Incidentally, Gary Roberts was also on that Calgary team. Years later, Stillman would do a really good deed to honor Chaisson, and I’ll get to that at the end of this post.
At the 1997 trading deadline, Chiasson was sent to the Whale in exchange for journeyman defenseman Glen Featherstone, forward prospect Hnat Domenichelli, a second round pick in 1997 and a third round pick in 1998. He finished that season in Hartford, moved with the team to North Carolina, but he never played in Raleigh.
The Hurricanes were going through their very rough transition. They had to play the first two seasons in my hometown of Greensboro, which is about 70 miles away from Raleigh. The hockey fans in Greensboro were passionate about their Greensboro Monarchs of the ECHL. Hockey, to those fans, wasn’t about skill; it was about fighting. When Greensboro was awarded an AHL team in 1995, fans were confused by this sudden dropoff in line brawls and a sudden increase in skill. But at least it was still fairly cheap, and the box office didn’t suffer that much. When the NHL came to town along with NHL ticket prices, things went very badly. Carolina’s attendance woes were and still are legendary. We have a coliseum with a capacity of 20,000 for hockey, but on a very good night, there were 8,000 in the stands.
Carolina managed to make the playoffs by winning the dreadfully bad Southeast division in 1999, and they faced Boston in the first round. Although the Bruins were the “road” team, they were heavily favored to win. Nobody gave the Canes a chance. The Canes were shut out in game one at home. They rebounded for an overtime win in game two. Ray Sheppard had two goals including the game winner (which Chiasson assisted). Surprisingly, Carolina took game three in Boston to take a 2-1 series lead. However, the Bruins won game four, then the series shifted back to Greensboro and became a best of three series. What happened next, was epic.
Game five of that series was my first experience with live playoff hockey. Because Greensboro hadn’t fully embraced the Hurricanes, tickets were readily available. I bought a lower level center ice ticket at the box office an hour before the puck drop. We’ve come a long way since then.
The game was nowhere near a sellout, but the atmosphere was incredible. Steve Chiasson scored the first goal of the game on the power play at 3:49. That would be his last goal. Ray Sheppard scored his fifth of the postseason in the second, and the Canes had a 2-0 lead at the second intermission. Things went badly very quickly as the Bruins exploded for three goals in the first 150 seconds of the third. Sami Kapanen scored a late goal to force overtime. The first overtime solved nothing, but the crowd was on its feet the whole time. The second overtime went deep, and the crowd remained on its feet. Anson Carter ended at 14:45 of the fifth period. Although it was only three games to two, that ended it for Carolina. Game six was a 2-0 shutout in Boston, and Carolina’s season was over.
The boys took their charter back to Raleigh, where they all lived, and went to Gary Roberts’ house for that fateful party.
I’m not going to lie and say that I met Chiasson dozens of times and rubbed elbows with him a a local watering hole. I never met him. At that point in my life, I wasn’t exactly a die-hard fan and there’s no chance that I would have even recognized him in public. In a press conference coach Paul Maurice said that there was no way to put it other than that they had lost a family member. He was referring to the players and team personnel, but that’s how we fans felt, too. It was, and still is, a devastating loss.
Carolina has taken his sweater number 3 out of circulation. The number isn’t officially retired, but there’s no way anyone will ever wear that number again.
In the summer of 2006, after the Canes won the Stanley Cup, Cory Stillman did a tremendous thing. He used his day with the Cup to honor his late friend Steve Chiasson. He visited the Millennium Park in Petersborough, Ontario, where a small statue of Chiasson has been erected. While he could have done anything he wanted, what Stillman wanted to do was to spend time there with Chiasson’s family.
Chiasson was always described as a consummate teammate and an all-around good guy. It was often said about him “he’s the kind of guy you’d want to go into battle with”.
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About Red and Black Hockey
David Lee is a restaurant manager with an unused degree in political science. He can be found at Carolina Hurricanes games, Scrabble tournaments and indie-rock shows. Sometimes, all in the same day.