By Andrew Miller
Of The Post and Courier Staff
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – One by one the Stingrays filed past goaltender Kirk Daubenspeck’s locker room stall, most half-dressed and still dripping with sweat from the morning workout Wednesday.
As Daubenspeck packed his bags, some of his teammates joked that they hoped they’d never see him again. The feeling was mutual, but not in a bad way.
At age 30, Daubenspeck had entertained thoughts about retiring from the game he loves after this season and getting on with his life.
He was considering law school, but a weekend with the Portland (Maine) Pirates of the American Hockey League changed all his future plans. Daubenspeck signed a contract with the Pirates on Tuesday and will most likely be with them for the rest of the season.
“I didn’t want to start my next career when I was 40 without any money in the bank,” Daubenspeck said. “This was probably my last year. I might have played next year, but I wasn’t sure. Last weekend kind of changed everything. I didn’t expect to get this opportunity again. I thought the chance to play in the AHL was behind me.”
Brought in as a backup goalie just for the weekend, Daubenspeck made the most of his opportunity. He stopped all 27 shots he faced and led the Pirates to a 4-0 victory over Worcester on Sunday. Two nights earlier, he came in against Manchester in the third period and stopped all nine shots he faced. In four periods with Portland, he had 36 saves on 36 shots.
“In some ways it’s easier to play up in the AHL than it is to play in the ECHL,” Daubenspeck said. “The game is faster up there and there are more skilled players, but they don’t get as many quality chances as they do in the ECHL. If you take care of your business as a goalie, you’re going to be successful up there.
“I knew this was probably my last chance to make an impression at this level. I was aggressive. I felt good both games.”
Daubenspeck, who led the Stingrays to a Kelly Cup playoff title in 2001, isn’t sure if he’ll ever be back in a Stingrays uniform.
“If things go as planned up in Portland, I won’t be back,” Daubenspeck said. “If we get to the playoffs up there, then I probably won’t be back. But if Portland doesn’t make the playoffs I’ll be back for the playoffs (with the Stingrays), but that means that I didn’t do my job up there. But I’m trying not to think about that right now.”
Daubenspeck has 58 games of experience between the AHL and the old International Hockey League. His last major stint in the AHL came with Rochester in 2000 when he went 7-10-4 with a 2.57 goals against average and a .913 save percentage.
“It’s funny because the guys gave me the puck after the shutout (Sunday) and I told them this wasn’t my first rodeo,” Daubenspeck said.
Sunday’s shutout wasn’t even Daubenspeck’s first in the AHL. In 2000, the former Wisconsin Badgers star stopped 36 shots against Louisville. Daubenspeck’s dream of playing in the NHL still might be possible. Stranger things have happened. Roman Cechmanek didn’t play in the NHL until he was 30.
“Anything could happen,” head coach Jason Fitzsimmons said. “He’s a better goalie now than he was when he came into the league. He deserves this chance.”