By Andrew Miller
Of The Post and Courier Staff
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – It was a blustery, 28-degree morning in Portland, Maine on Tuesday. The first hints of a long, bitter Maine winter were starting to fill the air.
More than 1,000 miles to the south, Mark Ardelan, Maxime Daigneault and Rich Peverley awoke to sunny skies and a summer-like day in Charleston that topped out at 86 degrees.
Ardelan, Daigneault and Peverley, all rookies this season for the South Carolina Stingrays, are under two-way contracts with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League. Under normal circumstances, all three players probably would have started their professional hockey careers in Maine. But with the NHL lockout and the rosters of most AHL teams bursting at the seams, Ardelan, Daigneault and Peverley were assigned to the Stingrays and the ECHL.
From a career standpoint, all three would rather be playing in Portland, but for now, the Lowcountry suits them just fine.
“If you’re going to play in the ECHL, I can’t think of a better place to play and live than Charleston,” said Peverley, a native of Guelph, Ontario. “We’ve got great fan support here and the weather has been great. It doesn’t get this hot in Canada very often. It might get like this in the summer, but this is November.”
Ardelan, Daigneault and Peverley have played significant roles in the Stingrays’ 3-1-1 start this season.
“We’re off to a great start and it’s been a team effort, but the young guys have come out of the chute playing really well,” Fitzsimmons said. “The young guys have a lot of energy and I think that has been kind of contagious for some of the older guys. I’ve seen a little more jump out of some of the older guys and I think that’s because we’ve got such a young team.”
Peverley leads the Stingrays in scoring with four points on two goals and two assists. He had the team’s first goal of the season last week against Columbia.
“Rich has a ton of offensive upside in his game,” Fitzsimmons said. “He could stick-handle in a phone booth with three guys in there.”
Ardelan has the only goal of the season from a defenseman.
“Mark has been solid for us,” Fitzsimmons said. “He’s got a good shot, so I’d like to see him shoot the puck a little more.”
Daigneault, a second-round pick of the Washington Capitals in 2002, has been brilliant in his first two professional starts. He is a perfect 2-0-0 with a 1.50 goals against average and a .952 save percentage.
“You can see why the Capitals have invested so much in him,” Fitzsimmons said. “He’s got a great attitude. He wants to get better. There’s no doubt, he’ll be in the NHL one day.”
Thus far, all three players have made the most of their time in the ECHL.
“Guys like Ardelan, Daigneault and Peverley probably deserve a fair shot at the AHL,” Fitzsimmons said. “As far as being in the ECHL, I think they’re in a good situation here because they’re going to develop and get a chance to get their feet wet at the professional level. There’s no question that all three of them are going to get an opportunity to play at the next level.
“The thing that I’ve liked about them and all of our rookies we’ve got this season, is that they’re all very eager to learn and get better. They’re all hungry and want to get to the next level and that’s the kind of attitude you’ve got to have to make it up there.”
Weather aside, Ardelan has been impressed with the league’s talent level.
“I was surprised actually at how good the league is. I didn’t think the league was going to be as good as it was,” Ardelan said. “I’ve been impressed with the level of play. The guys are bigger and stronger than they were in juniors. They execute a little bit better and the skill level, overall, is higher. It’s a good league. Playing here is only going to make me better.”
There are more than a dozen NHL goalies with ECHL experience, including Washington’s Olaf Kolzig.
“I think at first I was a little disappointed to be in the ECHL because I really wanted to start in Portland this season,” Daigneault said. “But there have been a lot of goalies in the NHL that have played in this league, so I understand that it’s a process and I’ve got to develop. Now, I’m glad I’m here because I can concentrate on my game and making myself better.”