By Cliff Mehrtens
© 2005 The Charlotte Observer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Like many folks in the southern United States, Mike Bayrack was glued to the television for Hurricane Rita coverage.
Rita, a Category 3 storm, plowed into the Texas-Louisiana border with top winds of 120 mph and tons of rain. It damaged Beaumont, Texas, home of the ECHL’s Texas Wildcatters, the team Bayrack had signed with a month earlier.
Bayrack, an Edmonton, Alberta, native, was at a friend’s house in Thomasville, ready to drive to southeast Texas for his seventh professional season.
“We were up until 3 in the morning the night it went through Beaumont,” he said. “We watched every night. I thought Beaumont might have been far enough inland.”
FEMA took over the team’s arena as a hub for rescue operations, and the ECHL suspended team operations for the season.
Bayrack, a 27-year-old center, suddenly was without a team. The storm hit Sept. 24, a day before camp. The next day, he signed with the Charlotte Checkers, who he had negotiated with during the summer.
“I was lucky enough that Charlotte was still interested,” Bayrack said. “I was pretty lucky that I wasn’t (in Texas) yet. Where I’m from it’s blizzards, but nothing that takes over your facility.”
Bayrack said a couple hockey friends were in Beaumont, preparing for camp.
“Roofs gone,” he said. “And our team apartments were hit pretty good, too.”
The ECHL allowed Texas players to sign with other teams, but said those under contract would revert back to the Wildcatters in 2006-07.
He’ll play in today’s 7:35 p.m. opener against the Gwinnett Gladiators, a rematch of last year’s ECHL semifinals. The Checkers will debut at the new uptown arena Nov. 6.
The league also suspended the Mississippi Sea Wolves season when Hurricane Katrina damaged much of their beachside arena in Biloxi, Miss.
Bayrack, who has 151 goals, scored 37 with Danbury in the United Hockey League last season, and 36 with Greensboro in the ECHL two seasons ago.
Coach Derek Wilkinson said it was tragic for the areas hit by the storms, and he realizes how lucky Charlotte was to get another shot at Bayrack.
“We lost Mississippi, which sent the schedule into chaos, then Texas,” Wilkinson said. “It’s headaches we’ve gone through, but not even comparable to what people are doing in day-to-day life. It makes our problems seem small.”
“The neat part is the way everyone has stuck together,” he said. “… We can help each other, and that spirit shined through.”