Some Stingrays players can't leave Lowcountry

Dr. Jason Hehr, a former Stingrays player, went into dentistry after his years playing hockey.

Just the thought of playing professional hockey in South Carolina was enough for Rob Concannon to seriously consider hanging up his skates for good.

Fifteen years later, the transplanted Bostonian couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

Current South Carolina Stingrays tough guy Nate Kiser thought that he'd find a bunch of "hillbillies" when he first arrived in Charleston in 2004. It took only a couple years to convert the Michigan native, who now calls Hanahan home.

Garth Premak and Jeff McLean, who played for the Stingrays for less than a season, are still in the Lowcountry, fully converted to the Southern way of life.

For whatever reasons -- love, lifestyle, hunting, weather, education and even traffic -- more than two dozen current and former Stingrays players live in the Lowcountry with no plans of leaving anytime soon.

More than 500 players have donned a South Carolina Stingrays jersey since the franchise first stepped onto the ice 18 years ago. Players like Brett Marietti, Dave Seitz, Jason Fitzsimmons and Concannon have become household names among hockey fans in the Lowcountry. But the city of Charleston has left an equally indelible mark on the players.

"Charleston is a great place to live," said Seitz, a member of the franchise's Hall of Fame and the team's all-time leading scorer. "It seems like every year the list of ex-Stingrays living down here grows."

Their lives now are as varied as their backgrounds were when they played for the Stingrays. Some are firefighters, others own their own construction companies. There's even a dentist and a musician.

"It's almost like being in a fraternity," Seitz said. "There's certainly a sense of community among the current and former players."

Another common denominator has been the Stingrays ownership group. The Zucker, Greenwald and Pearlstine families have looked after the players even after their playing careers were over.

"They make you feel like you're a part of a family," Concannon said. "That has a huge impact on you as a player."

Take former defenseman Jason Hehr, who came to Charleston in 1996.

"Nice place to visit, but never thought I'd live here," Hehr said.

Co-owner Anita Zucker took an interest in Hehr's education. He wanted to become an oral surgeon, so Zucker called the Medical University of South Carolina on his behalf.

"Pretty soon the dean of dental school was getting all these calls," Hehr said. "Anita really stepped up on my behalf and I got in. That's typical what they do for the guys on the team."

In 1995, Concannon attended an NHL camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs as an undrafted rookie free agent. He made enough of an impression to be assigned to St. John's, the Maple Leafs' American Hockey affiliate. Just before the start of the regular season, the Maple Leafs assigned him to the fledgling South Carolina Stingrays.

"I told them there was no way I was going to South Carolina to play hockey, so I went back to Boston," Concannon said.

But two of Concannon's childhood friends, Mark and Mike Bavis, had played with the Stingrays the previous year and convinced him to give Charleston a try.

"I don't know that I'd have come if not for them," Concannon said.

When Concannon landed at the Charleston airport, a fan recognized him as the newest Stingray and welcomed him to the community. The next night he played before a packed North Charleston Coliseum. There was an instant connection between player and fans.

Later that same season, Concannon was called up to St. John's. He played 21 games with the Maple Leafs and then asked the coach to send him back down to South Carolina.

"I was having way more fun playing in South Carolina than I was in St. John's," said Concannon, who became the team's president last year. "This is where I wanted to be."

"My mother couldn't understand why I didn't come back to Boston more often," he said. "Then she came down here and understood."

Concannon's experience is common among former Stingrays players. After a couple of seasons in South Carolina, Seitz was finally getting another chance to play at the next level when he was called up to Chicago in the old International Hockey League.

But after a week, he wanted to come back.

"Yeah, it was a higher level and it was one step away from the NHL, but I wasn't enjoying playing as much as I did when I was in South Carolina," Seitz said.

Family matters

Garth Premak started the 1993 season with Rochester of the American Hockey League when he signed with the Stingrays. He was hoping to play in Europe where he could make more money, and after 13 games for the Stingrays he moved to England.

But during the four weeks he spent in Charleston, he met a woman who would have quite an impact on his life.

"We didn't go out when I was playing, but I left all of my stuff in storage when I went over to England," Premak said. "When the season ended in England, I came back to Charleston and it was the beginning of summer. My plan was to stay here a couple of weeks and put my feet in the sand."

Two weeks turned into three months after he renewed his relationship with his girlfriend and future wife, Laura Rivers of Summerville.

"My plans changed pretty quickly after I met Laura," Premak said.

But even after they got married, Premak, who owns a construction company, still hadn't moved to the Lowcountry. But all it took was one long winter in Red Deer, Alberta.

"My son Josh had just been born and Laura wasn't crazy about the winter in Red Deer," Premak said. "It didn't take much convincing for me to move back down there."

In 2000, Jeff McLean was at the end of his professional career, spanning nine seasons with eight different teams. He and his wife Tani were looking to put down roots.

"This is where my career ended," said McLean, who sells insurance. "We were starting a family and this seemed like a good place to raise your kids."

Like most of the other ex-Stingrays, lifestyle and the weather were huge factors.

"I'd grown up in Vancouver and had lived in Minneapolis and the traffic is terrible there," McLean said. "We were looking for a slower lifestyle and you can't beat the weather. It feels like you're on vacation almost year-round."

Premak agreed.

"I got a photo from my mother a week ago and there was four feet of snow in Red Deer," Premak said. "I sent her one back of our yard in full bloom. I think we made the right decision."

Alumni reunion

The franchise has been around for almost two decades and Concannon is hoping to host a reunion of ex- Stingray players.

"My goal is to have an alumni game in conjunction with opening day," Concannon said. "I know the fans would love to see some of the guys."

With two dozen players already in the area, Concannon would already have enough for two teams.

"I might even put the skates back on," Concannon said with a laugh. "Putting on that uniform kind of connects us all together."

Reach Andrew Miller at 937-5599.