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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford has bit his lip since the former Hartford Whalers moved south five seasons ago.

He watched as outsiders poked fun at the area as a poor hockey market and a mistake by the NHL. But now, the Stanley Cup finals are providing the ultimate free advertising for the much-maligned franchise.

``We've known about this team for a long time, but now with this kind of exposure and interest in the team it expands a long way out of our market,'' Rutherford said.

Of course, the Mayberry and moonshine references surfaced again in Detroit newspapers as Carolina headed into the Cup finals against the established Hockeytown of Detroit. But fans from New Jersey, Montreal and Toronto _ the three teams Carolina beat in the Eastern Conference to reach the finals _ realized the criticisms of the area and the team were off base.

``It was funny at first,'' Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. ``But it's probably more embarrassing now for the people who are saying it. You just need to spend a little time in Raleigh _ what a fabulous place to live.''

The rest of the nation has seen the Carolina franchise grow right before its eyes, considering the club had just two TV games on ESPN this season and has been well off hockey's radar screen for years.

Most were shocked by the rabid fan base and the enthusiasm for hockey in the South.

When Rutherford was asked if he would be surprised to see someone in California or Alaska wearing a Hurricanes jersey, he said: ``I don't think there are any left, are there?''

Rutherford and owner Pete Karmanos believe playing established franchises in the postseason was a bonus.

``This builds credibility. They have to come to see our building, they have to come and see the market and they get to see our team,'' Rutherford said. ``That's what this is about, it's about our players and it's about winning. But everything else gets pulled into it. We have a lot of things to be proud of in our market.''

Karmanos, who lives in Detroit, agrees.

``This is going to help to open eyes and people will understand that the Triangle area is one of the more progressive places in the country,'' Karmanos said. ``Hopefully people have gone, `Wow, have we been off base.'''

It's hard to measure what the exposure has meant in dollars. However, businesses around town that never showed interested in the team have the team logo and signs reading ``Go Canes'' plastered in windows and on buildings.

In an area where co-workers, brothers and sisters, and husbands and wives are often at odds when rooting for college basketball teams Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State _ all separated by a 30-mile radius _ the Canes have unified the community.

In a way, too, the progression of the Hurricanes is vindication for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who took some heat when the club moved here from Connecticut.

``I think this is a very compelling story,'' Bettman said. ``You see the atmosphere, you see the people in the parking lots three or four hours in advance, tailgating, the bands are playing, people are partying. It is a terrific, terrific atmosphere.''

The exposure the team has gotten can also translate to the ice. Potential free agents may now look at the Carolina market as one that's attractive.

``When the team succeeds, you have the capability of drawing interest from some players looking to win a championship,'' rookie Erik Cole said. ``With us playing well in the postseason it's going to be expected of us next year and it might draw some other players toward us.''

One happy camper in Carolina is Rod Brind'Amour. It wasn't that way when he was traded in the 1999-2000 season from Philadelphia for Hurricanes captain Keith Primeau.

``I was making (Philadelphia) my home and to get traded was something I wasn't happy with, but it's a business and you deal with it,'' Brind'Amour said. ``Coming to where I came, the people were so nice it made it feel like home. It didn't take long to realize I was fortunate to be in a place like Raleigh.''