Williams: Paying it forward on a hockey journey

Recently, the Tar Heel alum and her sportswriter husband journeyed to North Carolina to visit relatives. The fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing the Carolina Hurricanes at Raleigh’s PNC Arena was a complete coincidence.

It was the first NHL game for the relatives even though he once was a next-door neighbor (in Scarsdale, N.Y.) to former New York Ranger Ulf Nilsson and her daughter played ice hockey as a teenager. No one knew what to expect on the ride to the arena, but we were pretty sure we weren’t going to be the only out-of-town fans in attendance since the plane from Pittsburgh featured quite a few Penguins outfits.

Unlike Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center which has plenty of less-expensive parking options five blocks away, PNC Arena is not in downtown Raleigh. Instead, it’s adjacent to Carter-Finley Stadium, the home of the North Carolina State football team. There is no Plan B for parking.

As we approached the arena, I had a $20 bill ready. So when I saw a sign that said “Parking $10,” I felt like Homer Simpson finding a free doughnut (Woo-HOO!).

With only a pickup truck with Alabama plates in front of us, the line into the parking lot came to a halt. The attendant hollered back to a co-worker: “What do I do? He doesn’t have any money.”

As we sat watching the drama unfold, my mind started calculating ($20 is what we figured we’d be spending so ...).

Before those thoughts could reach my tongue, the Tar Heel told me to give the attendant $20 and pay for the truck with the change.

“Pay it forward,” she said.

When we got out of the car, the couple from Alabama came over to thank us and offer the $7 they had. We told them they might need it during the game. They offered to write a check, but we said it wasn’t necessary.

Our new friends said they were attending their first hockey game and meeting the Colvins from Pittsburgh. Looking at our jackets, they asked if we knew them.

“This must be a bigger deal than we realized,” the Alabaman said of the game. “It must be like [University of] Alabama football to us.”

I explained that it was a big deal for hockey fans, saying Sidney Crosby is considered to be the world’s best player and the Pens were playing the Hurricanes for the first time since trading Jordan Staal to Carolina. (Staal’s ability to play effectively at both ends will be missed when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin next month).

A day later, the Tar Heel walked the Chapel Hill campus for the first time in decades, pointing out her first dormitory, the music education building where she had many performances and even the brick sidewalk on the quad where she once broke a toe while playing touch football in her bare feet.

Later, we used the car to see parts of the UNC campus that were far to walk to — specifically the Dean Smith Center (aka Dean Dome, home of the Tar Heels basketball teams).

We pulled into the parking lot for Kenan Memorial Stadium, the home of the football team. (There was no evidence that Butch Davis once worked there, but they proudly claim Lawrence Taylor).

The parking lot was permit-only, but there were several spaces available. It was 45 minutes until the weekend hours when my brother-in-law asked if I wanted to get out and look around.

He knew I couldn’t resist. We spent maybe 10 minutes tops inside the stadium, long enough to take a photo and for the Tar Heel to point out where students sat some time ago.

Walking back to the car, I spotted the ticket first. Hoping it was a fine of no more than $20, I feared we had just spent $50 to walk into an empty stadium.

Luck was on our side — inside the envelope was a warning with a fee of $0.00.

We need to pay it forward more often.

Tom Williams is a sportswriter with The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.

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