RALEIGH, N.C. — The loneliest vuvuzela this side of 2010 was still there in PNC Arena on Thursday night, bleating out a few hopeful notes as the final home game of the season got going. Three sharp blasts on it by its owner prefaced the "Let’s Go ‘Canes!" chant.
Those started out energetically enough, and why not?
A minute and two seconds into the game, though, the Carolina Hurricanes (34-34-11) did what they have done most of the season at home and immediately fell behind 1-0 to the visiting Washington Capitals (36-30-13).
But the Hurricanes, as they have also done all season, teased the fans just enough by sticking around and cutting the deficit to 2-1 late in the second.
The energy picked back up in the arena, but it lasted only slightly longer than it had before the puck dropped initially as it took a little over two minutes for the Capitals to respond and take a 3-1 lead.
Those hopeful notes from the vuvuzela quickly turned to mournful sad trombone notes that weren’t meant to lead any cheer, just random bleats to puncture the silence.
As the third period began, that quickly stretched to 4-1. Then 5-1.
Then even the once-hopeful vuvuzela fell silent. As did the chants. As did the arena.
The organist played on, though. And the music blasted from the speakers. The Storm Squad (the cheerleaders) kept a smile on their faces. Stormy, the mascot, still waved to the kids with his perma-smile flashing brightly.
Even as the fans started filing out of the last home game of the year when the Capitals took a 5-1 lead early in the third period.
"The Carolina Hurricanes look like a team that can’t wait to get to the golf course tonight!" Capitals radio play-by-play man John Walton shouted from the broadcast booth after that fifth Captials’ goal.
Bear in mind, Walton has been watching a team that hasn’t looked much more interested the last few weeks, either.
A better quote than that golf quip comes to mind more readily, though: "What has happened before will happen again."
Some might recognize that quote as the opening line of the 1953 "Peter Pan" movie (which was also in J.M. Barrie’s book of the same name), or the TV show Battlestar Galactica, or maybe even the Information Society song "Seek 200". (Okay, probably not the Information Society song.)
But really, it’s from the Bible. Because the notion that cycles repeat themselves endlessly over time is hardly a new one.
And that feeling of inevitability and hopelessness loomed over the emptying arena like a perpetually cloudy sky on a summer day — one that lingers and never quite lets the sun peak out, but never rains, either.
Then boos — faint, and scattered, but boos.
Then more silence, and just disgruntled murmuring.
Sure, some Hurricanes diehards stuck around. Not the vuvuzela’s owner, though. Or if he did, he just ran out of energy to power it. Or motivation. Or both.
Captain Eric Staal understood, though.
"I feel bad for the fans that were here watching and came out to support us. We appreciate the ones that stayed and were there at the end clapping, because I know it hasn’t been easy," Staal said. "It hasn’t been easy for me, personally, over the last five years."
His blonde hair was wet and disheveled as the media assembled around the locker of highest-profile player on the Hurricanes’ roster. He ran his hands through his hair to keep the sweat from dropping into his blonde eyelashes, but to no avail.
He rubbed at his eyes, but as anyone who has done that to sweat-filled eyes knows, that only makes it worse. So he closed them, sighing, reflecting not just on what had just happened but the season as a whole.
Staal has come under some fire in the last few weeks — as a captain of a disappointing team, that’s to be expected, but it hasn’t been any easier for one of the more popular players on the team during his time in Raleigh to take.
That, combined with the team’s struggles in general, meant a lot of this burden has rested on him.
And it’s been a heavy one, but one that he’s willing to bear.
"Whether I have a letter or not, I’m going to be the same way. I’m taking this personally because I’ve been here the longest and I’ve been through good times, obviously a lot more bad. But my job is to go out there and compete and work and that’s what I’m trying to do," Staal said.
"Whether or not people think that or not, I’m out there competing as hard as I can regardless of the situation and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. There’s no easy answer right now. It’s been a difficult stretch.
"It’s been a difficult number of years. Right now’s not a time to go over everything. It’s about being ready to play tomorrow and having everyone on board."
Yes, the Carolina Hurricanes do still have a game to play.
There’s a lot of change coming to this organization in the near future, and a lot of uncertainty looms around everyone on this roster.
Nothing will be decided in the next day or so, but certainly there’s no reason to feel more optimistic about this team if you’re a fan based on what the team put on the ice on Thursday.
Or much of the home schedule, really.
"This is a great building. It has a great energy. In this building when you come out and are the aggressor, our crowd is a crowd that helps carry momentum," Staal said. "We didn’t do a good enough job of that all year as far as being the aggressor or creating those chances to get our fans involved and excited. That’s got to be corrected for next year."
This will now be the fifth straight season the Carolina Hurricanes won’t make the playoffs.
Team owner Peter Karmanos sat down with John Forslund of FOX Sports Carolinas earlier this week and gave head coach Kirk Muller a vote of confidence, but seemed to imply that change in the form of "tweaks" was coming.
What those tweaks will be is still unclear, and the cloud of uncertainty hangs over this team.
Muller says, though, that shouldn’t matter.
"A lot of being a pro in the pro sports world is that there’s always rumors, there’s always speculation. You’ve got to learn to put everything to the side and do your job and get it done and do it the best you can," Muller said. "So that’s why you’re in pro sports. It’s not always easy and there’s always distractions and things that go on, but you’ve got to stay focused and do your job and get the job done."
There’s almost a freeing aspect of rooting for a team — or maybe even being on a team — that’s rebuilding from the ground up, something that suggests there’s hope for the future, for one thing. Because things can’t get any worse.
This team, though, is stuck in the middle.
It was in games all year with teams that it was in theory not as good as, and it has the talent to be a playoff team. It just didn’t happen, and it has happened just once since the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Ultimately, the fan with the vuvuzela will be back and leading chants at the beginning of next season, too.
But if things keep ending this way, maybe even that lonely vuvuzela will give up, and its plaintive tones will no longer call the chanting fans to action.
Maybe there won’t be many fans to call to action in the first place.