By Gene Sapakoff
The Post and Courier
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Jerry Zucker does not appear in official South Carolina Stingrays team pictures. The modest billionaire entrepreneur, scientist, inventor and investor wanted it that way. As with his major charity projects, Zucker preferred to contribute mightily to his minor league hockey team without grabbing attention.
In the lobby of the Stingrays’ offices on West Montague Avenue there is only one small indicator the famous co-owner was part of the organization: A framed snapshot of Zucker and his beloved wife Anita in the trophy case.
“Oh,” Stingrays president Darren Abbott said. “That picture was given to us after his death. There’s another one in (head coach) Jared Bednar’s office.”
Zucker succumbed to brain cancer at 58 on April 12 and that very Saturday night in Augusta the Stingrays lost a first-round playoff game to fall behind 2-0 in a best-of-five series. Friday, the favorite team of a generous man affectionately known as “Mr. Z” to players and staff plays in Columbia with a 2-0 lead in a third-round series.
The Stingrays are 8-0 at the North Charleston Coliseum since Zucker’s death. They bounced back against Augusta, ousted Gwinnett and are a win away from the Kelly Cup semifinals.
It is way too trite to say the Stingrays are winning for Zucker. An ambitious young hockey player trying to dig a frozen puck out of the corner simply doesn’t have time to contemplate great philanthropic legacy before getting his face rammed into a plastic wall.
Winning or losing a playoff series to the Columbia Inferno will not enhance or tarnish Zucker’s foundation of kindness.
Zucker built the Carolina Ice Palace, insisted on shrewd business deals and saw to it that the Stingrays had a first-class organization. He left the details to others.
“Jerry got into hockey because of his family’s interest and he ended up becoming a hockey fan,” said Abbott, who at 38 has been with the Stingrays for eight years. “First and foremost, he really wanted everybody in the organization to be community-driven.”
Zucker is well known for donations worthy of headlines. Quietly, he also brought underprivileged children to Stingrays games, paid for players to return home for family funerals and helped former players establish businesses.
“A big part of our business is group tickets,” Abbott said. “But Jerry would call and say ‘Some kids from a school are coming out and I don’t want them charged. I want them to come as my guests.'”
Bednar told the team of Zucker’s death and secret battle with cancer after the Game 2 loss in Augusta.
“Some of you have met Jerry and some of you have known him for a few years and some of you haven’t met him,” he said to the players. “The service is tomorrow and you can go if you want, but you don’t have to.”
Everyone showed up.
“It was neat for the players to sit there and hear so many wonderful stories about who this guy was,” Abbott said. “Before, all a lot of them knew about Jerry was that he gave handshakes after games and a Christmas bonus.”
Zucker spoke to the team as a unit only at the annual holiday party. The man whose father was a Holocaust survivor reminded players how lucky they were to be living where they were living and eating what they were eating.
The Stingrays are honoring Zucker with a “J.Z.” sticker on their helmets. Next year, a more elaborate cursive “Z” will adorn the helmets. Starting next year, the team will present a Jerry Zucker Community Service Award to the most deserving player.
The Zuckers have pledged to stick with the Stingrays. Jeffrey Zucker, Jerry’s youngest son, attends Boston University and is interested in a career in professional hockey management. The family room of the Zucker home in West Ashley is a hockey lover’s paradise, with memorabilia including signed game jerseys from each National Hockey League captain.
Anita Zucker attended the last two Stingrays playoff home games.
“Jerry would probably be asking me how much money this playoff run was costing us,” Abbott said with a laugh. “No, seriously, he’d be very excited. Because he really, really wants to see the team win and do well. Obviously, winning makes Jerry’s family very happy. Anita is our biggest fan. To be able to make his wife happy, I think he would really be enjoying this.”