Discover more from North Carolina Rabbit Hole
What it's like to watch a Carolina Hurricanes game with North Carolina's governor
Roy Cooper has been this state's chief executive for six years. He's been a Caniac for much longer. I watched a game with him to find out what he and his fandom are all about.
“I’m a little nervous,” Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s 75th governor, tells a stage manager.
“Don’t be nervous,” the stage manager, Tisha Howard, tells him. You’ll be fine, she says. You know your stuff.
“I feel like I know hockey,” Cooper replies, “but…” He trails off.
It’s a few minutes before seven, and high up inside PNC Arena, the governor is waiting outside of the television broadcast booth. The plan is for him to join the play-by-play team of Mike Maniscalco and Tripp Tracy for a few minutes of the pre-game. Then he’ll be a guest color commentator during the first period. “I’m gonna be a sportscaster,” he tells me. “Living the dream.”
But first, we wait. Cooper recognizes Ron Biscotti, the former in-game host at the arena who’s now working as a security manager. “Ron the Ref!” he says, referring to a stage name that Biscotti hasn’t used in eight years.
“Is Freddy playing?” Cooper asks nobody in particular a few minutes later. No, comes the reply. Frederik Andersen, the Carolina Hurricanes’ starting goalie who got hurt in the last game against Dallas, is not playing tonight. This perplexes the governor, who’d heard that Andersen skated in team practice that morning. In general, Cooper is frustrated with the NHL’s vague injury reports. “Upper body injury?” he asks. What does that even mean? He’s also a little frustrated that Don Waddell, the Hurricanes general manager, won’t give him any insight. Don just told him that Freddy was “fine,” Cooper says, and sighs. He just wants to know. He wouldn’t tell anybody. “If I can keep an economic development project secret,” Cooper tells me, “I can keep an injury report secret.”
Howard waves toward the governor, and he heads in.
Maniscalco and Tracy want to talk about how honored they are that Cooper has joined them tonight. They ask him about his Halloween costume from last year, in which the governor was fully decked out in authentic Canes equipment, head to toe. “Best Halloween ever,” Cooper says. He went to two Halloween parties just so he could wear it twice, he says. Wore it the next day, too. His jersey number was 75. Why? “I’m the 75th governor,” he says. Whose stick was that? Seth Jarvis’s. Why does his helmet say 18? “I don’t know,” Cooper says. “That was just the helmet Don gave me.”
Tracy calls Cooper close, and gives him a small token. It’s Tracy’s 9-month sobriety chip. He wants the governor to have it because Cooper showed public support for Tracy during his time away from the broadcast for health issues. “Wow,” the governor says. “This means a lot.” He flips it around in his hand.
All three men pick up microphones, and they’re on the air. Tracy and Maniscalco have detailed questions. What about Sebastian Aho? “He’s working so hard right now,” Cooper says, and references the smooth goal he scored in Dallas a few days before. Andrei Svechnikov? Good kid, Cooper says. He’s coming around. Martin Necas? The man knows how to score in overtime, the governor says.
“You’re comin’ in, giving us stats?” Maniscalco says.
“I’m ready, man,” Cooper tells him.
The game starts. Cooper asks Tracy, on air, how Freddy’s doing. He’s fine, Tracy tells him. The governor holds his own. He makes references to game winning goals from games past. He’s excited about the Canes’ outdoor game on February 18th cross the parking lot at Carter-Finley Stadium. He likes the special jerseys that the team will wear for that game. The chatter turns to defenseman Brent Burns’s heavy slap shot. And his beard. I had a beard once, Cooper says. It was bad. “I looked like Festus from Gunsmoke,” he says.
“That was not a reference I was expecting to get on the broadcast,” Maniscalco says.
Cooper was supposed to stay until the first commercial break, but he sticks around for the first 13 minutes. As he leaves, Tracy assures him that he did a good job. Then, Cooper’s small entourage makes its way through back corridors, toward a service elevator, heading toward a private box. As he walks, Cooper turns to Eric Wilson, an aide in a Canes hat and zip-up. “You know what I didn’t do?” the governor says. “I didn’t tape the game!”
Roy Cooper is a passionate hockey fan. But as a governor, he’s not known for his charisma. “Cooper…is the living, breathing antonym of controversy,” The New Republic wrote about him in 2018. “A soft-spoken, salt-and-peppered licensed attorney whose drawl alone tells any born-and-bred North Carolinian that he came up well east of the capital of Raleigh, Cooper never deviates from his path.” He was first elected to the state house of representatives in 1986, and has won every election since then, becoming state senate majority leader, attorney general, and, in 2017, governor.
He has been around long enough to know how to wield power without having to shout about it. Even so, he’s a shrewd political operator. In 1989, he joined with Republicans to topple a Democratic speaker of the house. More recently, he endorsed the primary opponent of fellow Democrat Kirk deViere, a state senator from Fayetteville who sometimes voted with Republicans. It worked; deViere lost. Cooper has vetoed dozens of bills from the GOP-controlled legislature, but he’s also worked with them to agree on a state budget. In general, though, Cooper isn’t trying to grab headlines. He’s trying to get things done. “I think he is very focused on competent leadership: showing that government can be effective, can work on behalf, and for the betterment, of its citizens, and that ‘inspirational extremism’ is something that can alienate North Carolina’s electorate,” says Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of political science at Catawba College, who notes that Cooper resembles pragmatic leaders like former governors James Holshouser, Jim Hunt, and Mike Easley. “Today’s North Carolina is clearly a divided partisan state, but Cooper has always struck me as someone in that middle vein, who holds to and advances his political and philosophical values, but without the harshness of a partisan grenade-launcher.”
In shorter terms, he’s sort of boring.
There are flashes of personality here and there. In 2017, Cooper dressed up as Sheriff Andy Taylor for Halloween. In 2019, he purposely crammed as many puns and dad jokes as he could into the state Thanksgiving turkey pardoning ceremony. Last year, while putting on a microphone for an interview, he began running through the finer points of Sun Drop and referred to himself as a “diet soda sommelier.”
For some reason, though, every North Carolina governor seems to have a singular obsession. Some are policy based: Bev Perdue, a former teacher, was serious about education. So was Jim Hunt. Others have more whimsical interests. Mike Easley is an excellent woodworker. Bob Scott loved to eat opossum meat. Pat McCrory loved catch phrases like “stepping on toes” and “don’t put your stupid hat on.”
Roy Cooper? He is into the Canes. Like, way into them.
It’s not like he grew up watching hockey. Roy Cooper, now 65, spent his childhood in Rocky Mount, where there has never been an ice rink. He didn’t even really follow the Canes much when the franchise relocated from Hartford to Greensboro in 1997. It wasn’t until the team moved to its permanent home in Raleigh in 1999 that Cooper first went to a game. He was hooked. Immediately. “I was amazed at the skill, speed, and toughness involved in this sport,” he says. “I was amazed that these guys played 82 games, plus playoffs.”
Cooper tells me this as we head into a private box during the first period. The very first thing he notices as he takes his seat is the score—the San Jose Sharks got a goal as we made our way down from the television booth. He then points over to section 125. That’s where I used to sit, he says. Had season tickets for a while. Watched most of the playoff games in 2002. Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, the win that gave the Canes their first and only championship, was one of the most exciting things he’d ever seen. “We never sat down!” Cooper says. “What a great team that was.”
There’s a low, glass barrier that separates the governor’s box from the crowd. Cooper wishes it wasn’t there at all. “I’d rather be sitting down there,” he says. “But this is a lot easier for me to watch. People want to talk to me and that’s great. But I do like to watch the hockey!” He laughs. “I grew up playing high school football and basketball, and hockey is a new dimensi–-YEAH! YEAH!!”
Calvin de Haan has just scooped up a rebound and scored to tie the game.
Cooper is up immediately, on his feet, clapping. He leans over, speaking loudly so I can hear him over Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up.” That’s another goal from a Canes defenseman, he notes, “a nice little wrister.” The arena music ends with a Ric Flair woo. Roy Cooper does not woo. But he still has a huge smile on his face. “Now I feel good,” he says. “Now I feel a little better.”
As the game goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Roy Cooper is here to do two things: Watch hockey, and talk about hockey. He delves into the upcoming trade deadline, and the Max Pacioretty injury that gave the Canes $8 million in cap room. The old owner, Peter Karamanos, did not like to spend every dollar he could on players, Cooper says. That’s not the case anymore. “We’re gonna be looking for a goal scorer. I think Don’s gonna go looking for somebody,” Cooper says. “With that much room, they’re not gonna be crazy, but they might be lookin’ to work a deal. And he’s not going to give up one of his young stars. He’s not going to give up a Jarvis or a Necas. He’s not going to do it.”
It very quickly dawns on me: The governor knows far more about the Carolina Hurricanes than I do.
I’m here to ask questions. He’s here to watch. “There it is,” he says, presciently, moments before Jesper Fast slides a centering pass over to Teuvo Teravainen. James Reimer—a former Cane, the governor reminds me—makes the save for the Sharks. “Agh!” Cooper says another time when Brent Burns takes a shot, again saved by Reimer. On the next play, a Sharks player flips the puck into Carolina’s bench while trying to clear the zone. “Did it touch, is it out?” Cooper says, asking for a penalty. “Delay of game? Delay of game? Do you call it?”
Cooper turns to me. “I’m not holding back for you. That’s the way I’d react. And if there were people around after that goal, I’d high five them.”
Even so, I had been wondering if I was getting the true Roy Cooper hockey experience. After all, Cooper is a politician who’s careful about what he says and knows how to endlessly fill silence with words. (He does, briefly, veer into the economic importance of sports and an upcoming push to legalize sports betting in North Carolina.) A few days later, I call up State Senator Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Orange County. Meyer’s originally from Cleveland, and is one of the few hockey lovers in the General Assembly. He’s no match for Roy Cooper, though. “I enjoy hockey, he is a true fan,” Meyer says. “I enjoy watching hockey with true fans because they can tell you stuff.”
In 2019, Meyer got his chance for Cooper to tell him stuff. Both men were talking about hockey one day. “I asked him: How often do you go? Who do you go with? Who are your hockey friends? I was kind of curious,” Meyer says. Usually I go by myself, Cooper told him. Sometimes an aide will come. The first lady usually doesn’t go. “I thought, ‘You’re the governor? Nobody will go?’”
Meyer asked Cooper how he gets his tickets. “StubHub,” the governor said.
Both men agreed to go to a game. And so Meyer found himself and his two sons waiting at the VIP entrance for Cooper’s black SUV. Shortly before game time, the governor popped out, and was immediately greeted by Don Waddell. Everybody there knew who Roy Cooper was, Meyer noticed. Waddell upgraded Cooper’s seats to the owner’s box. Meyer’s two boys were delighted, and proceeded to stuff their faces with free food.
Did they talk business? Politics? Current events? No, says Meyer. “The governor just wanted to talk hockey.”
That fits who Roy Cooper is, Meyer says. He’s not in a suite at the Canes game cutting deals. He’s not a backslapper or a gladhander. Instead, Meyer says, Cooper is who he seems to be—esse quam vidieri, you might say. Earnest. Good-natured. Competent. “You don’t really get very many other glimpses of his personal self,” Meyer says. “Hockey is one of the few ways that people see who he truly is beyond his role as governor.”
Even so, Cooper doesn’t go as far as other hockey fans might go, Meyer says. “He doesn’t lose his mind because Roy Cooper doesn’t lose his mind.”
That is not to say that the governor is above all trash talking. During a lull in the action, Cooper tells a story he’s told before. When his daughter Natalie was younger, she wanted to make a sign to bring to the Canes game. “What’s it going to say?” he asked.
“Ref, you suck,” Natalie told him, proudly. It was something she’d heard at the arena before.
“I said ‘Let’s not talk about the person, let’s talk about the act. How about Bad Call?’” Natalie liked it, and during a particularly bad call on Bret Hedican, Natalie held up the sign, and scored some extended time on the Jumbotron. “That was one of my better parenting moments,” he says.
I have to jump in. “You said ‘let’s not talk about the person,’” I tell him. “And yet, last year, you went on Twitter and trash talked a guy from the Boston Bruins.”
Cooper slaps his hands together and laughs as hard as I’ve ever seen him laugh.
So, why’d he do it? That player, Brad Marchand, “made a comment about [then-Hurricane] Vincent Trocheck,” says Cooper. “I had to stand up for our guy.”
The governor insists that all of the tweets on his personal account (@RoyCooperNC) are his own. “I guess I didn’t realize there’d be interest!” he says, again laughing very, very hard at this. “But you know, he sort of deserved it.”
Cooper doesn’t trash talk anyone while we’re sitting together, though. “The good thing about my fandom is, I really wanna win,” he says. “But if we don’t, I don’t carry it with me. I enjoy myself. Win or lose, I enjoy it.”
It’s now the second period. Cooper gets up and claps as the Canes come back out on the ice. I always do this, he explains. He claps for 25 straight seconds.
“I love to come to games,” the governor says. He’s been to three so far this season. “I wish I could come more. But it’s kind of a production.” Instead, he says, he’ll speed watch games on TV, fast-forwarding through commercial breaks, lulls in the action, and icing calls. It’s the only way he can get through three periods of hockey with a schedule as busy as his. “Sometimes when things are stressful, I don’t have time to watch,” he says. “This is a thing I like to do when I can take a break. Sometimes I’m doing work during games. Writing memos, things like that, particularly during the breaks—.” There’s a whistle. “Our power play’s gotta get better,” the governor says, losing his train of thought because San Jose has just been hit with a penalty. He sighs. “We rank pretty low.”
Eric Wilson, the aide in the Canes hat, leans in and says my time with the governor is up. Cooper shakes my hand and sits back down, and I head high up into the arena to watch the rest of the game. Late in the third period, the Canes are down 3-2 and pull their goalie. Immediately, San Jose gets an empty net goal to go up 4-2, and fans start heading for the exits. Then, Sebastian Aho scores for the Canes :15 seconds later. Then, with just 12 seconds left, Martin Necas gets a goal to send the game to overtime. Less than a minute into the extra period, Necas gets the game winner. The Canes do the improbable: Scoring three goals in three minutes to win the game. From my vantage point, I can’t see the private box, so I text Wilson to ask about the governor’s mood. “Clearly exuberant,” comes the reply. “Lots of high fives.”
h/t Andrew Kornylak, Dan LaTorraca, and special thanks to Tyler Reinhold for the photos.
CORRECTIONS: Graig Meyer is from Orange County, not Durham. I initially misspelled Bret Hedican, and confused Jesper Fast for Jaccob Slavin, who did not play last Friday. Sorry, Caniacs.