By Andrew Miller
The Post and Courier
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays stood around the center ice face-off circle late Saturday night, their sticks raised to the roof in a salute to the fans at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The Stingrays had just lost 2-1 in overtime to the Cincinnati Cyclones in Game 5 of the American Conference finals. Their season was over and it was a bittersweet finish for the Stingrays, who had made their longest run in the Kelly Cup Playoffs since winning their second league title back in 2001.
“It was a great season, a lot for us to be proud of,” said Stingrays captain Cail MacLean, an 11-year veteran of the ECHL. “I’ve played on a lot of different teams with a lot of different players, but this might be my favorite team I’ve ever played on. Everyone came to the rink and worked hard every day. They were a great group of guys to play with.
“Your goal every year is to win a championship no matter what league you’re playing in, so it was disappointing that we didn’t win the Kelly Cup, but we’ve got nothing to hang our heads about — we had a great season.”
It was a sentiment shared by many in the Stingrays’ locker room.
“We had a young team, a lot of rookies and a lot of new faces in the locker room, but we came to play every night,” said assistant captain Nate Kiser. “I couldn’t be prouder of what we accomplished on the ice this season. We made a pretty good at it in the playoffs, but we came up short. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
The Stingrays won a franchise record 47 games during the 2007-08 regular season. The Stingrays finished second in the South Division. The 97 points in the standings was second most in franchise history, trailing only the 1996-97 Kelly Cup championship team, which had 100 points, but won just 45 games. The Stingrays set a franchise record with 12 straight wins in December.
“I give the guys a lot of credit, they worked hard from day one in training camp until the end of the playoffs,” said first-year head coach Jared Bednar. “I thought we had an extremely hard-working team and I hope they had a lot of fun because I had a lot of fun coaching them. We had our ups and downs. We had some adversity, but when you look at it as a whole I thought it was a really good season.
“We set a couple of records with most wins and consecutive wins and finishing with the fourth-best record in the league. We got pretty deep in the playoffs, getting to the conference finals, so it was a very successful season. It’s disappointing that we didn’t win the Kelly Cup because I thought we had the team to do it, but at the end of the day only one team is going to win a championship.”
Bednar said his main goal before the season began was to recruit a team that could compete for a league title.
“We wanted to build a team that was going to contend for a Kelly Cup, and I think we accomplished that,” Bednar said. “A lot of other factors come into play when you win a Kelly Cup. You’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to get a bunch of bounces and everyone has to be on top of their games. A lot of things have to come together to win a championship, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. We had as good a shot as anyone to win it this season.”
Bednar said he learned a lot about his team when the Stingrays went through a six-game losing streak in November.
“I think in the end that made us a stronger team,” Bednar said. “For the guys who were here back in November, it was something that kept coming up in the locker room throughout the season. It kept guys working hard. You find out pretty quickly what kind of character you’ve got in the locker room when you have a skid like that. I think the main thing we learned was that we had a lot of character in the locker room.”
With 10 players on the Stingrays playoff roster under contract with American Hockey League teams, Bednar isn’t sure how much turnover the team will have for next season.
“I think we’ll see some of those guys back,” Bednar said. “Honestly, I hope all 10 guys are up in the American League next season, but I could see a couple of them ending up back here for a little while. At this level, you’re always going to have some amount of turnover. I’d love to have them all back, but that isn’t going to happen.”
The status of MacLean, 31, remains uncertain.
“You never want to make a rash decision, so I want to take a couple of weeks and talk it over with my wife and think about it,” MacLean said.