When the digital clock in the South Carolina Stingrays locker room hits eight minutes, one of the players begins a slow clap.
After a second or two, another player joins in, then another, and before long the entire room is clapping. The noise reaches a crescendo, until finally one of the players — on this night it’s forward Patrick Gaul — stands up to address his teammates.
It’s time for The Read.
According to Stingrays folklore, the very first Read took place more than two decades ago, in 1994, on the road just before a game in Huntington, W.Va., against the now-defunct Huntington Blizzards.
Then Stingrays head coach Rick Vaive handed a sheet of paper to then-goalie Jason Fitzsimmons about seven minutes before the drop of the puck.
“Fitzy,” Vaive is alleged to have said. “Tell the boys who is in the starting lineup tonight.”
Fitzsimmons, who eight years later would become the club’s third head coach, read off the starting five skaters and goaltender in his best public address announcer’s voice.
“It wasn’t like it was planned or anything,” Fitzsimmons remembers. “It was kind of a spontaneous thing that just happened and evolved over the years.”
It’s been a tradition ever since.
Fitzsimmons remembers that Vaive used The Read to help inspire and relax the team before the start of a game.
“He wanted something to help loosen us up and get us going at the same time,” Fitzsimmons said.
Over the years, The Read has evolved into a smackdown session where The Reader takes as many verbal shots at his teammates as he can get away with in two minutes. Almost no subject is off limits. Got a new girlfriend, you’re going to hear about it during The Read. Get a haircut or buy a new pair of pants or your parents come to town, it’ll come up.
Nothing is sacred.
Only the team is present for The Read. No coaches, no trainers, no doctors, no stick boys are allowed in the locker room. Even players that are healthy scratches or injured normally are not in the locker room during The Read.
The Read rotates among the players. If a player gives The Read and the Stingrays win, he does it again the next game and until the team loses. The pressure to come up with new material during a winning streak can be as intense as anything that happens on the ice. Make the same joke or barb twice and the players will have no mercy on The Reader.
For 24 straight games — from Feb. 7 until March 28 — Gaul conducted a clinic on The Read that would have made any stand-up comic envious. Although no official statistics are kept on the matter, Gaul is believed to have set the record for most consecutive reads during a season.
“It wasn’t easy coming up with it 24 different times,” Gaul said with a chuckle. “You generally take on one thing about a guy and you kind of run with that and make different twists on it. When I’m in the car, I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy on Pandora so my reads are Louie C.K. and Hannibal Buress influenced with some Chad Daniels mixed in. Those guys get my creative juices flowing.”
It seemed like it was destiny that Gaul did The Read during the Stingrays’ record-breaking 23-game winning streak. He’s the undisputed Read champion on this year’s team.
“Hands down, Patrick is the best,” said Stingrays captain Andrew Rowe. “He just slices guys into pieces during The Read. He’s so funny and he steps right up to the line, but he doesn’t cross it. It was something that everyone looked forward to before each game.”
Gaul was so good at The Read, that head coach Spencer Carbery and assistant coach Ryan Warsofsky would stand just outside the locker room to listen in.
“Patrick does his homework,” Carbery said. “He’s very witty and he puts some effort into it. It was perfect for him to have it during the winning streak. He came up with some interesting stuff along the way. That can get old pretty quickly. You’ve always got to have new material.”
How many times can you say 31-year-old goalie Jeff Jakaitis is too old for the ECHL?
“It got to be a challenge,” Gaul said with a smile. “You can only call Jeff old so many times. At one point I think I said Jeff was the only guy in the room that voted for FDR four times. Or he lied about his age, so he could fight in World War II. Stuff like that.“
Gaul said he’d have themes to his reads like going over what an early Facebook Page might have looked like for players when they were kids.
“I had to get creative and mix it up,” Gaul said. “I did an AOL screen name theme one time. I talked about what was in the profile. You’ve got to keep it interesting.”
Like Carbery and Rowe before him, when Gaul first joined the franchise three years ago, he had never been on a team with a pre-game ritual like The Read.
“I didn’t understand what was going on at first,” Gaul said. “I think the first time I was like ‘What is going on’ here, I’m trying to get ready for the game.’”
But it didn’t take long for Gaul to appreciate The Read.
“It’s a great way to keep the mood light before the game,” Gaul said. “There’s a line you flirt with that you try not to cross because you don’t want guys mad. I was in the starting lineup a couple of times and I was ripping myself. The one guy I might cross the line with is Marcus Perrier (defenseman), but he and I are pretty good friends and he knows it’s nothing personal.”