Born in Ohio and raised in the South, I'm a diehard Cleveland sports fan. I pass on NASCAR, play any sport but soccer and can't understand why the NFL is so undervalued in the Southeast. My favorite sport is basketball. I was a sports writer at the Columbia County News-Times from 2005 to 2007 before becoming Minor League Sports Writer at the Augusta Chronicle in December 2007.
Posted November 22, 2010 01:53 pm - Updated November 22, 2010 11:24 pm

The hockey blues: Is it happening again?

Local hockey fans know the feeling. Back in the days of the ECHL's Augusta Lynx, a particular player would catch fire. He'd score 10 goals or so in a two-week period, and the wins would start to lift the team in the standings.


But not long after the inevitable player of the week award and the feature story in the newspaper, the call would come from the American Hockey League. The player was moving up, and Augusta was losing its hottest scorer.


I remember that exact scenario happening four times in one month during the 2007-08 season when Matt Christie, Ryan Dingle, Aaron Slattengren and John Laliberte all moved up. Then Augusta coach Bob Ferguson summed up the situation well.


"You feel good for the guys getting called up. They deserve the opportunity," he said in December 2007. "Now the concern is about the guys still here working. It's never a good time to lose guys, but we're in the middle of a four-games-in-five-days stretch, and this might be the worst time of the year for this to happen."


The Lynx, which were in third place at 17-11-3 at the time, went on to win only 15 of their remaining 41 games to finish seventh in the league on their way to a first-round playoff exit.


Fast-forward three years.


When the return of hockey to Augusta was announced in February, local fans were given a full summer's worth of positives when it came to the SPHL vs. ECHL debate. Fans here knew all about the ECHL brand of hockey but knew little of the SPHL. The SPHL voices hyped their league continually.


Two of the loudest voices came from then RiverHawks general manager Gilles Richard and SPHL president Jim Combs, who both stood in front of Augusta fans emphasizing the fact that the SPHL didn't have affiliation agreements and players who signed with the team at the beginning of the season stayed with the team through the end of the season.


"We don't want the best players on your team to not be here come January, February and into the playoff time," Combs said.


It's happening anyway.


RiverHawks forward Neil Graham was called up to the ECHL's South Carolina Stingrays over the weekend. He led Augusta in points (17) and goals (9), but the team is now left with a scoring void. If local fans listened to Combs in the offseason, they're now mad in the regular season. Believe me, I've got the e-mails and phone calls to prove it.


Combs dismissed Graham's call up as a rare occurrence, taking on a much different tone Monday afternoon.


"Guys are going to get called up. At our level, it happens much more infrequently," he said. "Nobody's going to hold anybody back."


So it sounds like what Combs "meant" to say to Augusta fans earlier this year was something along the lines of: We don't want the best players on your team to not be here come January, February and into the playoff time, but it might happen. It usually doesn't happen, and the fact that our players usually don't move up to higher leagues allows me to somehow spin this as a positive thing. We don't contractually obligate our players to stick around. We don't have to. Anybody can come get them whenever they want, but it's pretty rare that anybody actually wants them, so they'll still be here at the end of the season. And that's something you should be happy about.


Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but that's the appearance. It appears the league has taken something not-so-appealing (the fact that it is the lowest on the minor league totem pole) and turned it into a pseudo-asset. Our players stick around, the league boasts. But they say it only because they're betting on the fact that they'll have no where else to go.


Graham blew that theory up, playing well enough to earn a spot in the ECHL and exposing the league "positive" as nothing more than a spin on reality.


The same appears true in Louisiana where the SPHL's Ice Gators announced an affiliation agreement with the NHL's New York Islanders in October. The league practically bragged in the offseason that no such affiliations existed, meaning (they said) that SPHL rosters would remain intact and keep its top players.


That is, apparently, until an NHL team actually wants to be affiliated with an SPHL team. Then the SPHL will allow any type of affiliation.


Are local fans overreacting at the promotion of a single player? Perhaps. In reality, Graham could skate a few shifts for a week or two in Charleston and be back in Augusta before Christmas. Personally, I hope he plays well enough to get all the way to the NHL. That's the goal of every guy wearing a RiverHawks jersey this year, and I'm sure the players are glad that coach Brad Ralph is willing to allow a player to pursue an opportunity to move up if it presents itself.


Frankly, I don't have a problem with affiliations. I don't have a problem with players getting called up. Both can be very beneficial and, in my opinion, are crucial to developmental hockey. But I do have a problem with promoting the lack of both as assets to unsuspecting fans, who then, later in the season, get blind-sided by reality.


I hope the league can be more honest with its fans in the future.