Stingrays Feeling the Sting of Injuries
It’s 67 degrees and sunny here today in Charleston, SC. It’s high noon, and I just got back from spending a few hours at the rink with the South Carolina Stingrays. The boys went out for their morning skate at 10, but I arrived at 8:15 and spent some quality time with Stingrays head coach Jason Fitzsimmons. While we were chatting, athletic trainer D.J. Church came in and informed Fitzsimmons that two more of his players were ailing. Already, the Rays were going to be hard-pressed to field a full complement of players for tonight’s home tilt with the Columbia Inferno. The two injured players (and a few others who are ailing) will play, but like many of their teammates, they won’t be at full strength.
Such is life at this level. Hershey called up two Stingrays (forwards Stephen Werner and Matt Reid) yesterday, leaving the already battered Rays even more depleted. Defenseman Tim Judy will be among those donning a Stingrays sweater tonight, he’s a native of Bowie, Md. who now lives near Charleston. He played college hockey at Northeastern, and his pro experience consists of 16 games. Eight of those came with the ECHL’s Trenton Titans in 2004-05, and eight more came with South Carolina this season. In between his odd games with the Rays, he works in security at a local Target store. If I want to talk to him (and I do), I’ll have to get him after tonight’s game. He’ll be punching the clock at Target tomorrow while the rest of the Rays take the ice for practice.
While I am talking with coach, a booster club member knocks on the door and comes in for a quick chat with Fitzsimmons. The guy is a retired college dean who turns 76 on Sunday. He is the team’s unofficial photographer, and he hasn’t missed a practice in nine years. The booster club here is like the team’s seventh man, according to both Fitzsimmons and Mike Kelly, the team’s director of broadcasting. They supply the team with food to take on the bus for road trips, and they also help furnish the players’ apartments with furniture, utensils, linens and the like.
Fitzsimmons is not optimistic about being able to improve his team between now and tomorrow’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. “Everyone wants to trade a rowboat for a speedboat,” he laments, echoing the mantra of several NHL GMs at this time last week.
After the team’s practice, I spend a few more minutes with Fitzsimmons. Assistant coach Jared Bednar has arrived now; he and a couple of the injured players were late to the rink because of an accident that snarled traffic on one of the local thoroughfares. Fitzsimmons and Bednar grew up just a couple hours away from each other in Saskatchewan, but their respective hockey paths did not cross until 1996-97, when both were here playing with the Stingrays. This is Fitzsimmons’ fifth season at the helm in South Carolina, and it’s also Bednar’s fifth season as the team’s assistant coach.
With just 16 games remaining (and 11 of those on the road), the Rays are two points behind Charlotte for the final playoff spot. While South Carolina entertains Columbia tonight, the Charlotte Checkers are at home against the Augusta Lynx. And the Stingrays travel to Charlotte for an obviously important game with the Checkers on Thursday night.
With so many of his forwards and defensemen ailing, Fitzsimmons will be relying heavily on veteran goaltender Davis Parley.
“He has single-handedly won us hockey games and we need that this week,” says Fitzsimmons.
“Three of the seven forwards would not be playing if it were early in the season and we had a full roster,” continues the coach. And this is before Church informed him of the other two ailments. Make that five of nine forwards. According to Fitzsimmons, the Rays will dress the full complement of 16 skaters and two goaltenders only about 60 percent of the time in a given season.
While giving me a tour of the North Charleston Arena, Fitzsimmons shows me a guitar. A lot of the players play it, and so does the coach.
“D.J. got the guitar for Christmas one year,” says Fitzsimmons, “and his wife wouldn’t let him play it at home. So he brought it here.”
The players favor rock music, while the coach leans decidedly toward country.
“I love the old stuff,” he says, invoking the names of Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and a few others. “That started back in junior hockey, in Moose Jaw. That’s all we’d listen to.”
Fitzsimmons’ day is taking on the flavor of a classic country song, filled with woe and misfortune. He and Bednar have pieced together a lineup of nine forwards and six defensemen, but they’re not all healthy. As bad as things look to this outsider, Fitzsimmons prefers to play a happy tune.
“I’ve had the most of fun of any year I’ve been in coaching,” says Fitzsimmons of the 2006-07 season. “I have so many guys this year who want to get to the NHL, and they work their asses off every night. Some years, you get guys who are more interested in what’s going to happen after the game on a Saturday night.
“It’s scary what our potential as a team could be, if we had everyone that we recruited and everyone that Washington sent us,” he says.
South Carolina has won eight of its 10 previous meetings with Columbia this season, but the banged up Rays really need the two points tonight. I’ll have more after the game.