They’ll meet in the parking lot outside PNC Arena on Tuesday afternoon, cooking up brisket and barbecue, and each of them making a ceremonial Carolina Cocktail.
The tailgating tradition has carried through the Stanley Cup playoffs, through the entire season really. But the one man who’s been there longer than anyone else will not be there.
Larry Putnam is leaving the building. Or rather, the entire country.
The retired CPA from Greensboro is the longest-standing season ticket holder for the Carolina Hurricanes. He’s been there through good and bad, since the “Green Acres” days to the championship season and the long lull since 2006.
But when the Canes return home on Tuesday for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, Putnam will be a long, long way from Raleigh.
“We’ll be in London,” he said this week as he prepared for a vacation with his wife Carol, a trip he planned long before the Canes caught fire and became a cause celebre in the NHL, before the Jerks were born and the long painful years seemed to disappear and the Stanley Cup itself appeared again on the North Carolina horizon.
“We’re going to see Clapton,” Putnam said.
Eric Clapton will play three nights in the Royal Albert Hall, and Putnam knew it might be the last chance he would get to see the rock ‘n’ roll legend.
The hockey fans he’s leaving behind only had one thing to say about that.
“Clapton better be good.”
Putnam said he’ll have a way to listen, hoping for a good internet connection and praying he can get CNBC an ocean away. It’s not like he hasn’t missed games. But he’s never missed one this big.
“I can’t not know what’s happening,” he said.
Putnam, 68, will leave his tickets for family, take his lucky Hurricanes sweater with him to London and pull for his team just as if he were there, playoff beard and all.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I have superstitions.”
Which brings us to the cocktail somebody thought up. It’s now a pregame tradition, an eclectic concoction known only to a small group of Carolina tailgaters in a sea of superstitious hockey fans.
“Yes, I have a playoff beard,” Putnam said. “I also wear the same clothes. We all do. We meet in the parking lot about 3 o’clock. One of my friends is a professional cook, and he cooks up either brisket or barbecue and we all have dishes we bring. I make my guacamole. And then before we go in, we all have a Carolina Cocktail.
“It’s a strawberry with a hole bored out at the top," Putnam said, “with Amoretto poured into the strawberry and then whipped cream on top of it all. You pop it in your mouth and eat it in one bite.”
A tradition like no other.
Putnam’s traditions with this franchise go back before it even existed, or at least before it came to North Carolina in 1997.
He and his wife had been casual fans of the Greensboro Generals back in the Eastern Hockey League days and then the ECHL Monarchs in the late '80s and early '90s. But it was when the AHL came to Greensboro that Putnam began to understand the game at the highest levels.
And when news leaked out that the Hartford Whalers would move to Raleigh and play their first two seasons in Greensboro, Putnam got on the phone and called the Whalers about season tickets.
“You’re way too early,” he was told.
So Putnam waited until the tickets went on sale and became the fourth season ticket buyer. The other three have since dropped out.
It’s been a wild ride ever since with the wildly inconsistent Canes winning the Cup in 2006 before becoming consistently bad for the last 12 seasons. Putnam’s status has taken him to places he’d never dreamed of going, watching the playoffs in Toronto with former Canes (and Monarchs) goalie Kevin Weekes’ family in 2002, going to Finland for the season-opener in 2010, even making the trip to the White House in 2006 with the team and the Cup.
The late congressman Howard Coble set that up.
But through the years, particularly in recent years, Putnam struggled when it came time to renew his season tickets. It hasn’t been easy watching the Canes fall into obscurity for more than a decade amid rumors of the franchise collapsing for good and attendance falling to the very bottom of the NHL.
But he remembered a conversation he overheard in 2005 between the couple that always sat in front of them behind the goal.
“Do you know how much we’ve spent on season tickets all these years?” Putnam said, recounting the conversation.
“He said ‘no.’
“She said, ‘Well, I do.’”
They agreed to buy a big-screen television, stay home at night and watch the games in their den instead of investing in the season tickets.
“And the next year they won the Stanley Cup,” Putnam said. “I never forget that conversation.”
The conversation in the parking lot Tuesday certainly will be about the Canes’ first home game in the Boston series and the memories of so many games that led to this one.
But it will also be about the guy who isn’t there, the longest standing Hurricanes fan of them all.
And over in London, his heart will go out to the Canes and his friends back home. Turns out Larry Putnam has a rock ‘n’ roll heart, too.