Charlotte Checkers 5, South Carolina Stingrays 4
I had no idea what to expect going into yesterday's matchup between South Division rivals Charlotte and South Carolina. I'd never been to an ECHL game, or any hockey game south of DC for that matter. But I'm on vacation in Charleston, and what better way to spend my time in the South than by going to a hockey game?
It was a close game all the way until the end, where the Rays were unable to convert on a 6-on-3 (with the goalie pulled). SC never held the lead, but was able to answer each Charlotte goal with one of their own--much like the Caps, the Rays played much harder when they were losing than when the score was tied. Big standouts for the Rays were center Matt Fornataro, wingers Gregg Johnson and Dain Prewitt, and and defenseman Johann Kroll with an apparently famous pink hockey stick. I would've watched out for Josh Godfrey, but he was up in Hershey. The level of play was much lower than the NHL, obviously, but I think it was a step above the college hockey I've watched.
What was more interesting to me than how individual Caps prospects played was the experience itself. For $15 I was able to sit four rows back, right behind the penalty box. There must've been around 5,000 people at the game--not bad for a minor league hockey team in South Carolina. Being the defending Kelly Cup champions and recently coming off a 13-game winning streak doesn't hurt.
The crowd was a good mix of Southern football fans, families who just wanted something to do with their Sunday afternoon, some Canadians on vacation, and a surprisingly high number of older folk who have been season ticket holders since the team was founded in 1993. There was a wide variety of NHL jerseys in the stands; lots of Caps jerseys, but I saw more Pens sweaters than anything else. Ugh. Not sure if this was because there are a high number of Pittsburghers (is that a word?) in Charleston, if it's because the Pens are the big bandwagon NHL team, or a combination of the two.
As a uniform enthusiast, I thought the Stingrays' unis looked sharp (save for the big Ford sponsorship patches, but I guess that's unavoidable). A clean look with a sleek stingray logo made the Rays look a step above what we think of as your average cheesy minor league hockey jersey. There were a ton of fans sporting Rays sweaters, too.
Stingrays fans have a love-hate relationship with DC and Hershey. As one could imagine, it's frustrating when all your team's best players constantly get sucked up to the parent clubs. They went through something like nine different goaltenders last season. On one hand, fans want to see the players succeed, but on the other, that success involves leaving the ECHL. Regardless, the fans know the players on a very personal level, in ways NHL fans could never do. A woman I spoke to hadn't missed a Rays home game since they were founded, and said the players freaked out if they didn't see her up against the glass before games watching them do warmups. They constantly have events like season ticket holder lunches with the players, things that bring them much closer to Charleston as a community. And at the game, I got a feeling I could never get at Verizon Center, unless one day maybe I'm rich enough to have front row season tickets--it smelled like hockey. The scent of rubber, ice, and sweaty hockey gear is something that brought back memories for me, and is something missing from our high-caliber NHL games.
If you're ever in the Charleston area and you're a nerdy enough Caps fan to read Japers' Rink, there's no reason not to go to a Stingrays game.