The fate of Patrick Gaul's professional hockey career was decided last January in an Applebee's restaurant in Trenton, N.J.
Minutes after the Stingrays' victory Trenton that night, South Carolina head coach Spencer Carbery checked his messages to discover that forwards Tyler Randell and Matt Beca were getting called up to the American Hockey League.
The Stingrays bench, which was already depleted by injuries and call-ups, just got a little shorter with the departure of Randell and Beca.
Carbery and assistant coach J.B. Bitner got back to the team hotel and walked across the street to grab a quick bite to eat at an Applebee's.
The two kicked around a few names from Southern Professional Hockey League when Bitner brought up Gaul. Bitner had played for Gaul's father, Joe, during his youth hockey days in Pittsburgh. Patrick, who had been a standout at Notre Dame, was playing for the Mississippi RiverKings in the SPHL.
Bitner called Joe Gaul to get a phone number for his son. As the conversation went along, Bitner realized that Joe Gaul was in Trenton and was staying in the hotel directly across the street from the Applebee's in which they were currently dining.
A few minutes later, Joe Gaul walked across the street, and by the time the check arrived, Patrick Gaul was a South Carolina Stingray.
"It's crazy how things work out sometimes," Carbery said. "J.B. and I were racking our brains to think of players we could get, and then we call Joe and he's right across the street. I guess Patrick was destined to be a South Carolina Stingray."
Gaul joined the Stingrays the following night and quickly established himself as a fan favorite for this work ethic and fearless style of play. Gaul solidified South Carolina's third line and was a major reason why the Stingrays were among the hottest teams in the ECHL over the final two months of the season. Gaul recorded just six goals and four assists in 33 games with the Stingrays last season, but numbers don't sum up his importance to the team.
"Patrick is a pit bull and a warrior," Carbery said. "He's a huge reason why we made it to the playoffs last season. I'm not sure we make the playoffs without him. He's a pillar because of the way he plays. He does everything right. He's really one of the most undervalued players in our league."
Listed at 5-8 and 175 pounds, Gaul is small even by ECHL standards. But he makes up for his lack of size with sheer determination and tenacity, skating every shift like it will be his last.
"When you're my size and have the skill set I do, you have to do something extra to stay in the lineup," Gaul said. "I try to go out there and be an energy guy and a pest on the ice. That's where I make my mark. I figure if I keep doing that, I'll be OK."
Gaul is especially effective on the Stingrays' forecheck, taking on opposing defensemen who are a half-foot taller and 50 pounds heavier.
"He just doesn't get intimidated by anyone on the ice," Carbery said. "There are some forwards that just don't want to play against certain defensemen. They avoid contact, they don't go into the tough areas, but not Patrick. Patrick won't back down from anybody. He gets clobbered sometimes and he gets worked over in the corners, but you never see him stop or give up."
When the season was over, Carbery made a point to make Gaul one of his first signings. It was a relief for Gaul, who had spent the previous summer working out, but with no clear direction.
"I wanted to come back, and for Spencer to sign me that quickly was nice because I knew I had a team that really wanted me," Gaul said. "I knew what to expect, and I knew what they expected from me."
However, when Gaul got to preseason camp, he quickly discovered that the Stingrays' roster was loaded at the forward position. He had to sit out the first three games of the season as a healthy scratch, waiting for his opportunity to get back into the lineup.
"We had a lot of experienced guys in our locker room. Guys that had established themselves in the ECHL and in the American League," Gaul said. "I knew I'd have to wait my turn and when my opportunity came, make the most of it."
Stingrays 4, Gladiators 2
The Stingrays improved to Stingrays 18-4-1-2 with a win over Gwinnett Gladiators (7-16-0-1) on Friday night.
Wayne Simpson scored two goals and Jeff Jakaits made 20 saves for South Carolina.
Lindsay Sparks and Patrick Gaul also scored for the Rays.