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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

On Losing a Championship

On June 14th, 2015 the ECHL's season came to an end as the Allen Americans, out of Allen, Texas, defeated the South Carolina Stingrays 6-1 in Game 7 of the Kelly Cup Finals in Texas.  I know this because I was there.

And I worked for the Stingrays.


My time with the Stingrays was nearly storybook.  A few days after my start, they began an historic 23 game winning streak.  Good for second longest in North American professional hockey history, it vaulted a team that was out of the playoff picture with two months to go firmly into the race for the Kelly Cup.

You believed they would never lose.  When they finally lost, you were wondering how much gas they'd spent beating up on teams for 23 straight games.  With the playoffs approaching, people wondered what the streak would do for them.  Would they have already spent their best play?  Would they ride that wave into a nice long run?

Joe Devin scores game winner vs Reading
The first round turned out to be a perfect preview of what was to come, where that wear and tear started to show.  A back-and-forth affair against the Reading Royals which saw each team win a game.  Rays, Royals, Rays, Royals, Rays, Royals.  Until Game 7.  Heading into the 3rd period, the Rays were down 2-1, looked lifeless, and had trouble generating much in terms of offense and seemed on the ropes.  A team that bowed out in the first round two years straight after promising regular seasons seemed destined to do the same.

And then the third period.

Storming back, finding their way, the Rays would go on to score two goals, including a late game winner, to advance to the next round.  A dramatic win in a dramatic season, and on to the second round against the Florida Everblades, who bowed out in a rather un-dramatic six games.  It was on to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toledo Walleye, and an amazing series of events.

Stingrays goalie, and ECHL Goalie of the Year,
Jeff Jakaitis
The Rays traveled to Toledo, OH to take on the Toledo Walleye and would go on to win those two on their own ice, a tall order no matter the team.  Back home for Game 3 and the same result held true.  The Stingrays were up 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals and fans were justifiably excited.  Brooms and chants of "We want the Cup!  We want the Cup!" echoed through the halls of the North Charleston Coliseum.  And it made some uneasy.

Game 4, looking to close out the Walleye, did not go as planned.  They still held a decided edge in the series, 3-1, and looked to play the next game at home before going back to Toledo.  Should be no problem... until Toledo won Game 5 by the same score as the game before, 5-4.  The defense was starting to tire, the goaltending was starting to waver.  It was back to Toledo for Game 6.

In what had been an offensive battle, with games being decided 2-1, then 4-3, 5-6, 5-4, and 5-4, it's no surprise that Game 6 ended up also being decided 5-4.  Unfortunately for the Stingrays, they were once again on the wrong end of this result.  They had lost a 3-0 series lead, all momentum was Toledo's way.  Every punch thrown, the Walleye had a counter.  It all came down to one game.

Game 7.  To everyone's surprise, the game remained scoreless through the first period.  And scoreless through the second period.  And scoreless through the third period.

And the first overtime.

And the second overtime.

Finally, in the third overtime...



The Stingrays had won in stunning fashion, and it was on to the Finals against the Allen Americans.  The fourth time the Stingrays had been in the Kelly Cup Finals.  They'd been 3-for-3 in their previous trips.  Expectations were high for the same.

Due to a scheduling quirk, the first three games were played in Allen, TX.  Game 1 went to the Rays 4-3.  Allen struck back in Game 2, winning handily 5-2.  An ever important Game 3 fell to the Stingrays by a 4-1 margin.  The Rays had a chance to win the Cup at home, where they'd host the next three matches.

Stingrays head coach Spencer Carbery
Game 4 and Allen's goaltender Riley Gill stands on his head, stealing a game for the seemingly overmatched Americans in double overtime.  Game 5, a freak storm knocks out power in the arena.  The game is delayed near two hours and the ice is soft, slow, nullifying the Stingrays game plan seeing the Americans prevail in overtime.  The Americans suddenly lead the series 3-2 and the Rays were back on their backs.

Game 6, the Stingrays struck.  With tension in the air, they would prove to be the better team.  Forcing a Game 7, the Rays would win 4-1 and leave many with hopes for a fourth Kelly Cup to be lifted by one of the premier minor league hockey teams.

It was on to Game 7, back in Allen.  Practice the morning before, Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery told the team, "We've been in these situations before.  We know how to win."  And it was no lie.  Game 7 experience?  Twice, check.  Game 7 on the road?  Check.  Overtime matches?  Eight games had gone to overtime for them in these playoffs.  Four of those to double overtime.  Two of those to triple.

The Stingrays were one game shy of completing a dream season.  Seeing themselves out of the playoffs as late as January, they went on to rip of an historic 23 game winning streak.  They fought a tough divisional opponent, stormed back to win in the final moments.  They overcame losing a 3-0 series lead to win in the most dramatic fashion.  The perfect cap to the season is winning in Game 7 on the road.  It's a tough task but the last team to win the Kelly Cup in Game 7 on the road just happened to be the South Carolina Stingrays.  Why not them?

Game day.  The Allen Event Center in Allen, TX, 40 minutes out of Dallas, had an air of tension before fans even began to file in.  Players who may normally avoid asking a high power for help are seen praying, giving themselves crosses, and sharing silent moments before heading to the ice.  Walking through the building as crews set up cameras, there was already a buzz beginning to build.  As ECHL dignitaries filed in, the sense of importance grew.  By the time fans, Americans and Stingrays alike, packed the Event Center it was a genuine fervor.  Then the puck dropped...




The Americans win 6-1.

6-1.  To make it to the Finals, to go through the grind of the regular season, plus post season.  To play 27 of 28 possible playoff games.  To see eight of those games go to overtime.  To see four of those games go to multiple overtimes.  To see two of those make it to three overtimes.  To see all of that washed away in sixty minutes.  To see if all nullified in 60 minutes in a way that you just never felt you had a chance...

Stingrays Captain Andrew Rowe
It's one of the emptiest, and most hollow feelings I've felt.  Months and months of sixty hour work weeks, in the office early and out near midnight.  A grind that never seemed to end, that had so many moments of near death just to be resurrected by a late goal or an overtime thriller, a rollercoaster that stopped right before (or I suppose after) the biggest drop.  It left you wanting more.  There was no payoff.  There was no reward.

You are saddened.  You are numbed.  You are realizing that 23 wins in a row meant nothing.  You are realizing that every overtime was for nothing.  You are realizing that all of these memories, of the stress, the anxiety, the sleepless nights were all washed away.

You'll always remember these things.  You'll always remember that run.  You'll always remember the great people you met and worked with, the places you traveled, and the lessons you've learned through this run.  The problem is that these memories will always end with, "Yeah, but..."

Then there's the hope.  The hope that takes over.  The likely foolish hope that says, "There's next year.  They can do it again.  They will do it again!"  It's coping.  It's not doubting the team, it's being realistic.  Repeating is hard.  As players moved on to the AHL or went overseas, the likelihood of the Stingrays repeating fluctuated.  Your mind still said, "There's always next year..." but that voice grew weaker.

At some point, that voice fades and the "Yeah but..." just stays there.  You are with that moment, you play it in your head again.  You have no outcome on the game but what could you have done differently?

Myself?  I was behind the glass filming video that was never used.  I see the first goals in my head over and over again.  I still search for an answer as to what I could have done and find none.  I just stood there, camera in hand, at first hoping for better then accepting the worst.  Acceptance of defeat came early.  It hasn't helped shorten the healing.

It's now nearly October 1st.  June 14th was a long time ago.  I think back on a lot of those memories fondly.  I remember the stress and anxiety, but more so I remember Ronnie, Bob, Andrew, Amanda, Julie, Zufelt, Joey Z, Melissa, Carice, Chuck and Kyle.  These are all of the support staff I worked closely with.  I remember Spencer and Ryan and Rob, the big guys.  I remember the fun we had, and how fortunate we were to be flown out to Texas with the team.

I also remember the emptiness of that defeat.  I feel the pull to try to win again.  To try to attach myself to any team so I can be a part of their growth, help them any way I can reach that next level and finally get the ring I was so close to.  I remember lacking that pay off for all of the work.  More importantly, I clearly remember the "Yeah, but..."

2014-15 South Carolina Stingrays
(author pictured in grey)

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