RALEIGH, N.C. -- Rod Brind'Amour smiled, his eyes glistened, and an adoring standing-room only crowd clapped and clapped and clapped to the point even the hockey-player-tough Brind'Amour, who played the game like he would forecheck a bull while wearing Hurricanes red, seemed a little bowled over.
For one last night and one lengthy ovation, the longtime captain of the Hurricanes, who retired in June after 21 seasons, took to the ice to mingle with the ghosts of hockey before he too joined them, his No. 17 raised permanently into the RBC Center rafters.
It was a farewell for Rod Brind'Amour, a thank you from the franchise he captained.
"I've had a lot of great memories here obviously, but that's just another one that'll be in there forever," Brind'Amour said.
"It was a real special night. There's not much else to say other than how appreciative I am."
The feeling was mutual for the standing-room only crowd, which bounced chants of "Rod-dy! Roddy!" off the arena walls as Brind'Amour spoke in tones alternating between hockey eulogy and bar-room toast.
Fittingly, the night came against the Flyers, the team who traded Brind'Amour to Carolina in 2000, and the club which remained half his hockey DNA. In his finest years, Brind'Amour merged Philly tough with Carolina class. The live-every-shift center still remains a fan favorite in each city.
Both teams donned Brind'Amour 17 jerseys, a long list of players and coaches from around the league filmed video messages, and Glen Wesley and Ron Francis, the two prior Hurricanes to have their numbers raised, stood beside him to welcome the newest member of the team's three-man retired number wing of Tobacco Road hockey.
Even the Stanley Cup itself had to show up to say goodbye to an old friend.
"I didn't want to [lift the Cup]," said Brind'Amour, who stood beside hockey's famous chalice during the banner-raising. "I did it once because I earned it. I didn't want to do it just for show."
You could've argued he more than earned it, had anyone wanted to argue with Brind'Amour on his night.
After all, the night for Rod Brind'Amour was the night because of Brind'Amour.
In a state that bleeds college basketball, it was Brind'Amour who was most responsible for teaching it to breathe hockey.
No, he never had the three-button suit class of the Hall of Famer Francis and he didn't have the longevity of Wesley, but he brought blue collar to Carolina red and captained a team in his image. His five years with the C is the longest tenure of any player in Hurricanes history; his the only tenure that's included a Stanley Cup.
He was never the team's most gifted player, but Brind'Amour was the sort of player who wasn't the sum of his parts but the multiple of them.
"His dedication speaks for itself," former Flyer teammate Keith Jones said. "He was always able to get the max out of what he possessed."
He got the best out of a franchise whose crest he donned once more during the pre-game ceremony.
In the earliest years of the Carolina Hurricanes' existence, when attendance was often half of Friday night's over-capacity number, admitting partiality to North Carolina's NHL club was little like telling someone you put ketchup on your eggs or voted Libertarian. Confess it, and you'd get a general look of confusion as if you'd just asked someone to sing the second verse of the Star Spangled Banner.
And that was in North Carolina.
On his first day in the state, after being traded midway through the 1999-2000 season, Brind'Amour found out that for a hockey market, well, Raleigh was a pretty good college sports town.
"I was traded in the middle of the season, so I had to ask for directions to the then-ESA (the building's name prior to RBC sponsorship)," Brind'Amour said in his pre-game speech. "The guy looked at me kind of strange and asked 'What's that?' I said it was where the Carolina Hurricanes play. He said, 'Who are they?" and I thought may not be the best place to play hockey."
Even that challenge would prove surmountable to Brind'Amour, who brought North Carolina its first professional championship in the unlikeliest of sports and became emblematic of the Tar Heel state, right down a nose that curves curiously like the state's Outer Banks coastline.
When the team qualified for the playoffs in 2001, it was his overtime goal in Game 4 in the first round that saved the Hurricanes from a sweep at the hands of the Devils, an established NHL club that had bullied their way through the team in the first three contests. Carolina would force a Game 6 at home after trailing 3-0 only to lose, but received a standing ovation over the final two minutes that marked hockey's arrival in the college basketball capital of the country.
The team followed a year later with a run to the Stanley Cup finals and four years after that Brind'Amour hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head with a General Electric powered smile, his granite jaw hanging open in a howl.
"It's kind of etched in stone in this area," Brind'Amour said of his Stanley Cup celebration. "The people in this building feel so much a part of this team. And they have been a part, from the ground up, and seen where it's come from.
"Everybody feels like they had a part in that. I'm just the guy who was holding it."
Five years later, there would be another standing ovation for the captain.
"I was a little bit choked up," Brind'Amour admitted of the lengthy ovation.
No, the arena – which became Rod Brind'Amour's Castle to the initiated during the team's 2006 Cup run – will never be called the house Rod built, but Raleigh was in many ways the market he helped make.
Brind'Amour scored his 1,000th point in a Hurricanes sweater, won two Selke Awards in Raleigh and gave a face to a team that for the first two years of its existence didn't even have a home.
By Friday night, among the scores of tributes, even Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski praised Brind'Amour on local radio. Short of having a flavor of barbecue sauce named after him, honors don't come much higher in the state of North Carolina.
You had to look no further than the arena's parking lot.
On a day when the weather alone was enough to know this wasn't Toronto -- temperatures ranged in the low 70s prior to gametime -- the RBC Center's parking lot was overrun, the barbecues came out and kids in jerseys ranging from Jeff O'Neill to Jeff Skinner played street hockey.
Inside, friends and teammates told stories of the man who approached the gym with the sort of religious zealotry that would make Joan of Arc seem wishy washy by comparison, described him in the most glowing of terms.
Asked to describe him in one word, former teammates and rivals ranged from "committed" to "relentless," the team's motto from its Stanley Cup run to simply "legend" by Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason.
Brind'Amour even showed an emotional side in his farewell speech.
"If the time comes when you can't jump over the boards, can't fight with your teammates," he said to his former teammates, "you should feel so honored had opportunity to play the game with the classiest athletes, in front of most wonderful fans in the world."
Then he said farewell.
As his No. 17 went into the rafters to permanently watch over the franchise he helped build, Brind'Amour darted out through the tunnel to the team locker room. The man was gone, but a packed house that bills itself as the "loudest and proudest" fans in the NHL remained, a standing-room only testament to a hockey market that's become less troubled Sun Belt franchise and more Canada with a Carolina drawl, or Boston with barbecues.
That too was a tribute to Rod Brind'Amour.