Southern Hospitality

While the Washington Capitals were headed north to Toronto on Monday, your intrepid Web blogger/reporter was headed in a southerly direction. The Caps will take on the Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday, and it will be one of those rare Washington games that I won’t see. I’m in Charleston, South Carolina, where I’ll be taking in the ECHL South Division skirmish between the South Carolina Stingrays and the Columbia Inferno on Tuesday. I will then follow the Rays up to Charlotte where they’ll play the Checkers on Thursday. That game looms large. Only 16 games remain, and South Carolina is a mere two points behind Charlotte for the final playoff berth in the South.

I’ve always wanted to come down here and spend a few days with the Stingrays (the Caps’ ECHL affiliate), but it has never made as much sense to do so as it does now. When I left Baltimore this morning, there were five Caps prospects dotting the Rays’ roster. That’s three or four more than the norm over the last few seasons, so it was a good time to come down. While I spent the day traveling, Stephen Werner was recalled to Hershey, as was Matt Reid, a guy Stingrays coach Jason Fitzsimmons calls a “heart and soul guy.” Werner’s departure leaves four Stingrays (defensemen Viktor Dovgan and Sasha Pokulok, forward Matt Stefanishion and goaltender Daren Machesney) who are under contract with Washington.

While the Caps tap Hershey for recalls in the event of injury or ineffectiveness, Hershey in turn taps the Stingrays. And right now, the Rays are about tapped out because of recalls and injuries of their own. Fitzsimmons and his troops pulled in from Pensacola early Monday morning. An all-night bus trip followed a split of two games with the Ice Pilots in the Florida Panhandle, but the personable coach wasn’t headed to bed for some rest. He spent most of the day on the phone, dialing for defensemen. And forwards.

The search turned up one John Donnelly, obtained in a cash deal from the Charlotte Checkers. Donnelly is a defenseman, a big rig (6-foot-4, 220) who is in his fourth year of pro hockey. The native of Marquette, Mich. played collegiate hockey at St. Norbert’s, which might be best known as the location of the Green Bay Packers’ training camp during the dynastic Vince Lombardi era of the 1960s. Since turning pro in 2003-04, Donnelly has toiled in these fine North American cities: Elmira, Augusta, Bakersfield, Topeka, Port Huron, Elmira (again), Rio Rancho (New Mexico), Tulsa, Charlotte and now Charleston.

There are more guys like Donnelly in the ECHL than there are guys like the aforementioned Caps prospects. During my time down here, I hope to learn some of their stories and share them with you.

My journey started with a morning flight from Baltimore to Charlotte. I rented a car in Charlotte, and even had to initial the “I promise not to drag-race” clause. Maybe that’s a by-product of being in NASCAR country. I hope going 85 in a 70 zone doesn’t count. My flight was late and I was just making up for lost time.

While driving here, I was looking at the pines on the side of the road and it struck me that this stretch of road looked somewhat similar to the stretch of I-95 south of Portland, a road I’ve driven many times on my journeys to cover both the Pirates and the Bears. Other than that, the only thing I saw that reminded me of hockey was a sign pointing toward a small South Carolina town. “Bowman,” it read.

I got to the hotel and grabbed a quick nap, then went down to the lobby where I was met by Mike Kelly, the Stingrays’ Director of Broadcasting. He’s the play-by-play voice of the Rays, and he is also responsible for media relations and ticket sales. That’s about five different people at the NHL level. Kelly has been in the business a lot of years, but this is his first here in Charleston. Kelly picked me up and transported me to Bobby Hartin’s Sports Grill, a pleasant sports bar that hosts a one-hour Stingrays radio show (it’s on the local ESPN affiliate) on Monday nights.

The food was very good, and many Stingrays supporters were in attendance. Fitzsimmons is there each week to share the mic, and a player is also a guest on the show each week. Dovgan was the guest tonight, which initially surprised me. The Russian kid (he just turned 20 last month) knew only a word or two of English when I saw him at Caps rookie camp in Hershey last July. He has really come a long way. Dovgan is taking English classes a couple times a week, and it shows. His teacher doesn’t speak any Russian, but he is coming along quite nicely with the language. It took some cast iron rocks for him to get up in front of a decent sized crowd and a radio audience, but he is a very charismatic kid and he quickly won the audience. Dovgan was making jokes about his wife (she’s still in Russia) not knowing about his new modified Mohawk haircut. And he was poking fun at “Fitzy” for getting on him for taking so many penalties. Kelly is a true pro, and he did a masterful job of making Dovgan comfortable, moving the interview along and keeping the flow of the show going.

Machesney (Dovgan’s roommate) was also in attendance. He’s sidelined with a knee injury right now, but he has had a very interesting first year as a pro. Machesney won his first AHL start in Albany in late Dec. and was in Madison Square Garden just days later, backing up Olie Kolzig for the Caps in front of a sold-out, Saturday night crowd.

There’s definitely something special down here. The fans are great, and they were extremely welcoming to the interloper from the north. Many of them follow the Rays on the road, and a lot of them will be making the trip down to Estero, Fla. next Tuesday and Wednesday to take in the two games between the Rays and the Florida Everblades. The fans were also reveling in the fact that former Stingray Rich Peverley had been called up to Nashville for his NHL debut the night before. “Once a Stingray, always a Stingray,” one fan told me. Fitzsimmons estimates that 25 or so ex-Rays stayed and now live in the area. The fan speculated that the weather and the golf might be responsible for that.

“It’s the people,” said Fitzsimmons. He’s probably right.

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2 Comments on “Southern Hospitality”

  1. Great to see you take a trip like this. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do, and I even have friends in Charleston but haven’t made the trip yet. I try to cover the Stingrays as much as possible on my website but it’s harder to do than Hershey because there just isn’t much written about them.

  2. Hockey Amor Says:

    So you missed the Leafs game. You didn’t miss much.

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