In 1993, the notion that a professional ice hockey team could succeed in the Lowcountry was, well, laughable.
Two decades later, the South Carolina Stingrays are having the last laugh.
South Carolina opens its 20th season tonight at the North Charleston Coliseum against the Gwinnett Gladiators, making the Stingrays one of the longest continuously operating franchises in the East Coast Hockey League.
When the original ownership group decided to bring an ECHL franchise to the Charleston area, few could have predicted that the club would still be a part of the community 20 years later.
“I’m sure there were a lot of people who thought that the 1993 season would be the first and only season for the South Carolina Stingrays,” said team President Rob Concannon, who played for the team when it won the 1997 ECHL Kelly Cup championship.
With a large military community in place and plenty of Northern transplants, the Stingrays didn’t just survive the 1993-94 season, they thrived, drawing sellout crowds and averaging nearly 10,000 fans a game.
“The fans were amazing,” said Garth Premak, who played only 13 games for the Stingrays in their inaugural season but is now a permanent resident of the Lowcountry. “It was like playing for a mini-NHL team.”
Over the next 19 seasons, the Stingrays would win three ECHL championships, setting ECHL marks for most years in the playoffs (18), most playoff games (157) and most postseason wins (84), all the while establishing a brand name that is nearly unparalleled in minor league hockey.
If fans were skeptical of professional ice hockey in the Lowcountry, some of the first players were downright hostile.
When Concannon found out he was going to be sent to Charleston from St. John’s (Newfoundland), the Toronto Maples Leafs American Hockey League affiliate, he went back home to Boston and refused to report to the team. It took several phone calls from childhood friends Mark and Mike Bavis to convince Concannon to head to the Lowcountry. Once Concannon got to Charleston, he didn’t want to leave. Concannon was called back up to St. John’s later that same season, but after a couple of weeks, wanted to return to Charleston.
“I missed it,” Concannon said. “The weather in St. John’s was miserable and we had more fans at the North Charleston Coliseum. I went to the general manager and asked him to send me back down.”
Concannon’s story was typical of the early Stingrays players, who knew little about the South and were dubious that the region would embrace hockey.
Jason Fitzsimmons, a draft pick of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, was sent down to Charleston in 1994. The AHL officials told him it was going to be a 15-hour drive. Fitzsimmons was pretty sure he could make the drive from Hamilton, Ontario, to Charleston, W.Va., in less time.
“I had no idea Charleston, South Carolina, had a hockey team,” said Fitzsimmons, who would play three seasons for the Stingrays and eventually be the team’s head coach.
When Fitzsimmons arrived in Charleston, Stingrays coach Rick Vaive suggested he go meet his future teammates at a downtown restaurant. Fitzsimmons was there when a red-headed kid with a mullet haircut and broad shoulders walked into the restaurant. Fitzsimmons was sure the guy was a hockey player.
“Mullets were not a big thing yet in South Carolina,” he said.
The red-headed kid turned out to be Brett Marietti, who would become the captain of the Stingrays and the first player in franchise history to have his jersey retired.
“I asked Fitzy if he was going to play for the Stingrays,” Marietti said. “He told me he was here to play hockey, but he wasn’t sure what the name of the team was. That’s the way it was back then. No one knew there was a professional hockey team in South Carolina.”
If the players didn’t know much about the ECHL or the Stingrays, many of the fans knew even less about the game itself.
The learning curve for the fans was pretty steep. In the early days, the fans would give rousing ovations for even the most routine plays, something Fitzsimmons picked up on pretty quickly.
“The puck might have been going three feet wide of the net, but I’d catch it in my glove anyway because the crowd just loved it,” Fitzsimmons said, laughing. “They would go nuts, so I jumped on that wagon pretty quickly. As players we would laugh about it, but that’s what made those games so great.”
Through the years, Stingrays players often refused to report to AHL teams, despite the fact that the league was one step closer to the NHL. Three times after Marietti’s rookie season, he was called up to the AHL’s Rochester Americans and three times he turned them down.
“It was just more fun to play here,” Marietti said.
While ECHL franchises have come and gone in Greenville, Florence, Columbia and Augusta, the Stingrays have remained a staple in the community. The main driving force behind the club has been the Zucker family, which has been involved in the ownership group since 1994. The late Jerry Zucker and his wife Anita took over sole ownership of the franchise in 2011.
“I love sports and have always been a sports fan,” said Anita Zucker, a fixture at the games. “We were committed from the first season we got involved. We felt like bringing a professional ice hockey team to the community would be affordable entertainment for everyone.”
The Zucker family has also been instrumental in the growth of hockey in the Lowcountry. The Carolina Ice Palace, the training facility for the Stingrays, was opened by the Zuckers in 1997.
“It’s been a labor of love for them,” said former defenseman and head coach Jared Bednar. “I doubt there’d be South Carolina Stingrays or youth hockey in Charleston without the Zucker family. There isn’t a lot of money in minor league sports. They wanted to give something back to the community and they are passionate about hockey.”
After their playing days were over, many players decided to settle in the Lowcountry. Dave Seitz, who led the Stingrays to two Kelly Cup titles, is among more than three dozen players still living in the area.
“Everyone made me feel like I was a part of the community from my very first game,” Seitz said. “I felt like I was part of the family and I know a lot of guys feel the same way. The weather isn’t too bad either, but it’s that sense of community that makes you stay.”
The team is holding an alumni game at 2 p.m. today at the North Charleston Coliseum. More than 20 former players are scheduled to play. The game is open to the public and admission is free.
“Once you’re a part of this organization, you a part of it for the rest of your life,” Fitzsimmons said. “Some of my best friends to this day are guys I met playing with the Stingrays.”