By Leif Skodnick
Special to ECHL.com
Greenville Grrrowl assistant coach Ryan Stewart knew the kind of player he was looking to bring in for the 2004-05 season.
“After last years’ tough record, we needed to bring in a face that the fans recognized,” said Stewart. “We wanted to bring back a player from the 2002 championship team, someone who could lead the team.”
Finding such a player was easy for Stewart, who has known Colin Pepperall since their childhood in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
“We’ve known each other forever. We grew up around the corner from each other. Our families are good friends and our brothers and sisters all live close to each other,” says Stewart, who is in his sixth season with the Grrrowl but his first as assistant coach and assistant general manager. “Our parents actually live on the same street now.”
“We knew each other because we lived around the corner from each other back home,” smiled Pepperall, who returned to Greenville after two seasons away. “It’s fabulous to be back. There’s always been an aura about Greenville that I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve been around the ECHL and there’s something about the city and the staff that makes me want to come back.”
Pepperall, who is four years younger than Stewart, has followed his boyhood neighbor around the world of professional hockey. They arrived in Greenville for the Grrrowl’s inaugural season in 1998-99. While Stewart stayed with the Grrrowl for the next four seasons, Pepperall spent part of 1998-99 with Indianapolis of the International Hockey League and split 1999-2000 between Hampton Roads in the ECHL and Cleveland in the IHL.
Pepperall, who was selected by the New York Rangers in the fifth round (131st overall) in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, returned to Greenville in 2000-01 and during his second tour, the team won the Kelly Cup Championship in 2002.
“Bringing him back was a no-brainer and it was our first priority. He’s a very talented player and was the first piece of the puzzle,” said Stewart, who together with Pepperall played in six games for Manchester in the British Super League before they both returned to the ECHL 2002-03. “He came in and the guys voted him as captain, which is a role that he has grown into and adjusted to over time. Everything he does and says is followed by the young guys. He’s the first player on the ice for practice and he has fun playing the game. He’s an easy guy to be friends with and that might be his best attribute as a leader.”
“Being named team captain is an honor,” stated Pepperall, who has scored 179 points (83g-96a) in a Greenville sweater. “We’ve had the atmosphere and we’ve had the guys, so practices are really upbeat. We’re going out every night with guys that want to play.”
“I talked to Ryan quite a bit last year and he was having some tough times. They lost a lot of one goal games,” said Pepperall, who was with Columbus of the ECHL in 2003-04. “It wasn’t because they weren’t trying, sometimes things like that happen.”
Now, instead of sitting on the bench together as teammates, Pepperall and Stewart are adjusting to a player and coach relationship.
“It’s been a bit of an adjustment, and we both had to learn it at the rink and on the ice. We both have our departments now and it’s a respect factor,” says Stewart, who retired as a player after 2003-04. “Back home and away from the rink, we’re buddies like we’ve always been. At the rink it’s a respect thing. I respect him and he respects me. It’s worked out well.”
The adjustment has been going well as the Grrrowl are in fourth place in the East Division at 31-21-5 and 67 points, a turnaround from last season when the team was 14-53-5 with 33 points.
“It’s great being here with Ryan again, but it’s also different. When I joke around, I step back because there is that line between coach and player,” said Pepperall, who ranks second on the Grrrowl this season with 44 points (23g-21a). “I’ve got a lot of respect for him because of what he’s done as a player and now as a coach and an assistant general manager. He’s got a lot on his plate and he’s doing a great job.”