By DOUG REESE
FLORENCE, S.C. -For at least one Pee Dee Pride fan, Saturday night’s game brought about a change in loyalties.
Florence resident Larry Hughes can’t possibly root against the Charlotte Checkers, Pee Dee’s opponent Saturday. That’d be going against family.
One of Hughes’ daughters is Terri Wilkinson, wife of former Checkers player and current Charlotte coach Derek Wilkinson.
“Tonight I kind of have to go with the Checkers,” Hughes said before Saturday’s game. “That’s bread and butter on the table for the family. But other than that, it’s straight Pride.”
Hughes, director of the Florence Career Center for 29 years, has been a Pee Dee hockey fan since the team arrived in 1997, but his ties to Wilkinson go back a little farther and, by marriage, run a little deeper.
Wilkinson met his future bride during his second pro season of 1995-96, when he spent most of his time with the now-defunct International Hockey League’s Atlanta Knights. Terri just happened to be co-owner of Paper Dolls, a ladies’ fashion boutique in Atlanta.
The two were introduced through then-Knights teammate and current Checkers center Allan Egeland, whose wife was friends with Terri. They dated through Derek’s call-ups to the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, who made Wilkinson their first goalie selection as an expansion team in the 1992 entry draft, and stops with IHL Cleveland.
After their marriage, Derek began his relationship with the Checkers organization, playing the 1999-2000 season in Charlotte. He followed his first ECHL stint with a season in Europe with the Belfast Bisons.
When Wilkinson realized his NHL career was all but done, he retired and went into real estate. His only connection to the game was a part-time position with the Checkers.
But that diversion evolved into a front office job and, eventually, an assistant coaching gig under Don MacAdam. Then in January, midway through Wilkinson’s second season as assistant, Charlotte fired MacAdam and asked the 29-year-old former goalie to take over as general manager and coach on an interim basis.
While Wilkinson never dreamed of stepping behind the bench, the decision was simple.
“Terri was a week away from having our first child, so I didn’t have much of a choice,” he said with a smile. “I needed a job.”
Wilkinson finished off a disappointing 2003-04 for Charlotte and, after taking over the coaching duties full-time, built a contender for this season. At 11-4-1, the Checkers lead the East Division by one point over the Pride (10-4-2) after Saturday’s 3-2 Pee Dee win in the teams’ first meeting of the season – doubly good news for Hughes, who now has two winners to pull for.
He continues to follow Pee Dee avidly, though he’s made it a point to see the Checkers in person. Hughes has made trips to Columbia and the Queen City already this year.
“I’ve been a Pride fan from the beginning,” he said. “Although, right now, I’ve seen more Checkers games than Pride games.”
Of course, the trips to Charlotte include the opportunity to visit family. Terri’s sisters Jerri, her identical twin, and Cristy, who was a contestant on the first season of NBC’s reality TV series “For Love Or Money,” also live there.
As for trips the other direction, Terri and 9-month-old daughter Kylie didn’t make it down Saturday. And that might continue, Derek joked, after the Checkers’ 3-1 loss to Columbia at home Friday night.
“She was at the game last night,” Wilkinson said. “She’s not allowed to come to any more games. She’s 0-2. And we’ve only lost three times, so she’s done.”
He later admitted Terri might come to Florence for next Friday’s Pride-Checkers game, the second of eight meetings between the teams this season. Charlotte’s move to the East brings about more regional games against teams like the Pride, Inferno and Grrrowl – a welcome sight for at least one Pee Dee fan.
“I was excited to see that and thought they should have all along,” Hughes said. “If you look at the map, it’s natural for Charlotte to play Florence and Columbia and Greenville.”
Just as natural as a father looking out for his daughter.