With less than a minute to play and the game already decided, veteran South Carolina forward Patrick Gaul jumped over the boards for the final time in a Stingrays uniform.
Despite his 5-8, 185-pound frame, Gaul has been a fan favorite from almost the first time he stepped onto the ice for his fearless style of play. When Gaul’s skates hit the ice Saturday night for what he knew was going to his last shift, the former Notre Dame standout tried to hit every player in an Orlando Solar Bears jersey – just like he had during every shift in his seven seasons with the Stingrays.
“My dad always told me to skate every shift like it was my last and I knew this was my last one,” said Gaul, who confirmed his retirement from professional hockey after the game. “I just wanted to hit everyone I could. I just wanted to play hard every minute I was on the ice for this team.”
It was a disappointing ending for Gaul and the Stingrays, who fell to Orlando, 5-2, behind two goals from Hunter Fejes in Game 5 of the ECHL’s Kelly Cup South Division semifinals Saturday night before a crowd of 3,252 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
After South Carolina won the first game of the best-of-7 series, the Solar Bears reeled off four straight wins, including the last three on the Stingrays' home ice to move onto the South Division finals against the winner of the Jacksonville-Florida series.
Gaul, 29, began his pro career in the Southern Professional Hockey League with the Mississippi RiverKings in the fall of 2012. Midway through the season, former Stingrays head coach Spencer Carbery called the Pittsburgh native up to the Stingrays, for what both assumed would be short stint in the ECHL.
“Honestly, we’d heard good things about Patrick, but we thought he’d be here just for the weekend, maybe a week,” Carbery said back in 2013. “The first game he played, he was probably our best forward on the ice and he’s been in the lineup ever since.”
Current Stingrays head coach Spiros Anastas has been around Gaul for less than a year, but leaned on the Stingrays alternate captain heavily during the season.
“He’s meant a ton to me,” Anastas said. “Every time he missed a game, it was a gaping hole in our lineup. He’s such a professional and he’s such a great guy. He plays the game the way it should be played. He takes care of his teammates first and he’s been a really good liaison between the coaching staff and the locker room. He’s the kind of guy that’s going to be successful where ever he goes and whatever he does. I know he’s going to be a Stingray forever.”
As the Stingrays made their way through the post-series handshake line, players from the Solar Bears took extra time to congratulate Gaul. When Gaul had shook his final Solar Bears hand, the Stingrays fans cheered and his teammates hugged him.
“I mean it’s tough, I told him I loved him,” said an emotional Andrew Cherniwchan, who played with Gaul for parts of six seasons, after the game. “I met him seven years ago and he’s one of those guys that everyone in that locker room has leaned on. I was proud to call him my friend. Losing this series sucks even more because of him.”
Gaul was a part of two Kelly Cup final runs, one in 2015 when the Stingrays lost in seven game to the Allen Americans and again in 2017 when South Carolina was swept by Colorado in four games.
One of the top penalty killers and shot blockers in the ECHL, Gaul was able to record double-digit goals in five of the last six seasons.
“I loved every minute I played here, this has become my second home,” Gaul said. “I’ll remember the locker room the most and all the stupid conversations I’ve had with my teammates over the years. Arguing about some of the dumbest stuff that I can’t repeat. I loved scoring goals and blocking shots and I definitely did more of the latter, but I loved my time here.”
This was the second straight season the Solar Bears have knocked the Stingrays out of the playoffs, sweeping South Carolina in 2018.
The Solar Bears took control of the game in the opening period scoring twice on goals from Tayler Thompson and Fejes, who had four goals and an assist in three games during the series.
The Stingrays made things interesting when defenseman Kevin McKernan scored just 13 seconds into the second period. Grant Besse scored on a power play to cut the lead to 3-2 with 3:01 to play in the second period.
But the Solar Bears pushed their advantage back to 4-2 on Jonne Tammela’s goal just 77 seconds later.
“Orlando is a very skilled team,” Anastas said. “Every time we seemed to get some momentum, they answered.”