By Nat Newell
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Rejjie Stringer emerged from the clubhouse at the Golden Hills Country Club on a springlike February day, unshaven, wearing a black Bauer Hockey baseball cap on backward and a San Jose Sharks pullover. Red-tinted sunglasses cover the Columbia Inferno center’s eyes, a pair of flip-flops on his feet.
This is how to live.
Stringer had spent his career focusing on the AHL, scouts, the future. This season he’s shed those anxieties — and a few dreams — to concentrate on the present. The result is that he’s the most relaxed and focused of his career at the same time, finding that narrow edge between contradictions to develop into one of the ECHL’s best players.
“I was always worried about what scouts were there, especially my first two years when I was under contract to San Jose,” Stringer said. “I was getting all worked up for, really, no reason, when I could have let my natural ability take over. Now, there’s no real pressure. I know I’m probably not going to get called up, so I don’t worry about it. I know it sounds stupid, but that’s when things get better.”
He’s tied for first in the ECHL in scoring (85) and game-winning goals (nine), second in assists (55) and tied for third with five short-handed goals. Stringer’s goals (30), assists and points are all career-highs and he holds every Inferno scoring record except power-play goals in a season (Corey Hessler has 12).
All those statistics, however, don’t add up to a single number in the eyes of the American Hockey League — 28. His age. When Hartford needed a player for three games in February and again this week, they chose Chris Pittman. He had 30 fewer points, but two fewer birthdays. Stringer scored 19 points in 40 AHL games in 1999-2000 and averaged more than a point per game the past three seasons in the WCHL and ECHL, but hasn’t returned.
“(Rejjie’s) very comfortable as far as the stage of his life he’s in,” Inferno coach Scott White said. “I bet if you asked him if he’d play next year, he probably wouldn’t know. For some guys it might be a bad thing, but for Rejjie it’s good. He doesn’t have to think ahead. He can think about the next two weeks, three weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, whatever it takes. I think he’s more dangerous that way.”
The addition of Justin Morrison in the season’s third game completed Stringer’s transformation. Six-foot-3, 205 pounds, fast and strong, Morrison was the prototype sniper to line up on Stringer’s right wing, but also a proficient passer. Neither player scored in their first game together, but the next night Stringer had three assists and Morrison scored twice.
Stringer had always been a pure set-up center, peaking at 20 goals in a season. But with defenses focusing on Morrison, Stringer found himself with more open ice and a linemate with the skill to get him the puck. He followed with his first professional hat trick as Morrison had a pair of assists. In the next game, Morrison scored four times and Stringer had a goal and two assists.
“In the past, I always just wanted to pass,” said Stringer, who also points to living with his girlfriend, Sasha Godenir, this season as a part of his success. “But with Mo, I’d find open ice and all of a sudden the puck was finding me and getting in the back of the net. It wasn’t all on my shoulders to handle the puck. Now, he’s gone but I’m hungry and I enjoy scoring. I wish I’d done it a long time ago.”
They formed the ECHL’s most productive duo, combining for 42 goals and 74 assists in the season’s first 43 games when Morrison was recalled to Manitoba. Columbia plunged from a team-record seven-game winning streak to losing four straight as Stringer didn’t score a point the first three games.
But he rebounded to score in 11 straight games and has led the Inferno’s 12-2-1 resurgence that has them atop the Southeast Division. As Morrison had done for him, now Stringer was bringing the best out of his linemates. Robin Carruthers had 11 points in his first 36 games, getting scratched 10 times. But since taking Morrison’s place on Stringer’s right side, Carruthers has 17 points in 16 games.
“After those four games, I was a little concerned,” White said. “But once we didn’t rely on Justin so much, the depth of our team took over. Early in the season, Justin helped out Rejjie because of his speed and size. But now Rejjie has that confidence and can dish it or finish.”
Where once Stringer focused intently on his future in hockey, now he struggles for an answer when confronted by the question. He begins by saying if a business opportunity presents itself in the off-season near his home in Gravelbourg, Saskatewan, he’d be ready to retire. In the next sentence, Stringer admits it would be hard to give up the game. Then those thoughts — the off-season, next season, the future — are gone. He steals a glance out the clubhouse window at his teammates and it all comes back.
“I’d love to finish winning a championship,” Stringer said before changing directions again. “That’d probably cap things off and I’d be satisfied retiring … but I’ll look at it this summer. I think about the guys on this team and I think we have a legitimate shot in the playoffs. For guys like me, older guys like (Barrie) Moore, Denny (Vial), (Shawn Wansborough), we’re getting toward the end of our careers and this is an exciting time for us.
“Right now, that’s all I’m going to focus on.”