By Kate Magandy
The Sun Herald
BILOXI, Miss. – Steffon Walby arrived in South Mississippi ready to play and serve as an assistant coach for the Mississippi Sea Wolves’ 2001-02 season.
He said, in my first interview with him, he knew how much he was wanted here when he arrived with his family to find the grass at his new house freshly mown and neighbors ready to help him unload the truck and help move him in.
Fast-forward to 2005. Walby is the newly named head coach of the Mississippi Sea Wolves and is spending his summer scouting players and putting a team together for his first year behind the bench and in charge.
Then, Hurricane Katrina. Walby didn’t lose his house, but his Eagle Point neighborhood was decimated. Likewise, his “barn,” as hockey players like to call arenas, was heavily damaged.
“I thought, ‘I finally get my chance (to coach). How does something like this happen?’
Walby knew there would be no season in 2005. He spent time with the owners and the league to figure out a way to suspend operations. Then he worked with his old friend and Atlanta Thrashers coach Bob Hartley during training camps, but by early October, he was back on the Coast.
“I came back and realized I could be part of something I’d never been a part of,” he said. “I found out how much I was learning from the Gulf Coast. The people here have a strength and ability to move on and make this place bigger and better than it was before.”
The same could be said for rebuilding his team. Walby worked in the offseason to put together a 2006-07 squad. But it became painfully clear that wouldn’t happen. The talented former right wing had offers for jobs elsewhere, but wanted to stay here.
“The one thing I kept holding on to was there is a reason. I don’t know what it is, but there is a reason for this.
“I had an opportunity to be an assistant coach elsewhere as early as last August, but the ownership, the people and the community… I felt like if I’d taken off, I don’t know that they would have believed we’d be back. And now I have an opportunity to advance myself not only as a head coach, but as a person.
“Obviously, this is what I was supposed to do when I came down here in ’01-’02.”
Walby is personable and outgoing, much like the first Sea Wolves coach, Bruce Boudreau. And he is connected to the Coast.
The Wisconsin native (and avowed Cheesehead) and his wife, Alexis, welcomed son Carter to the family in October 2005. His wife was eight months pregnant when Katrina hit. Their eldest son, Braxton, has grown up here.
“She was the one who said our home is Mississippi,” Walby said of Alexis. “Our child was born in Mississippi and we need to stick together. She’s the one who kept the whole troupe together.”
So two years after he started this head-coaching odyssey, Walby will finally get a chance to watch the puck drop on his first season as a head coach, the team’s 10th season and the rebirth of hockey in South Mississippi.
He’s got ideas about what kind of players he wants on the ice, but more important, what kind of men he wants in his organization and in his community.
“The first thing on the list is that I want guys coming down here who are coming to play for more than a championship,” he said. “I want them to play for the rebuilding effort and to help put the shine back in some kid’s eye.
“We’ll have our ups and downs on the ice, but it’ll be a lot better than what the community has been through the last two years.”
That’s what South Mississippi has to look forward to behind the bench this season. And the enthusiasm is catching. In the team’s ninth season, there were about 1,000 season ticket holders. As of this week, there were more than 1,200.
The Sea Wolves’ float in Biloxi’s Mardi Gras day parade brought a few more fans back in. By opening night in October, everyone should be ready for a little fun on the ice.
For Walby, it’ll be the end of a two-year wait. But the lessons he learned along the way will stand him in good stead when he’s behind the bench.