More than a decade of minor league hockey came and went in Augusta without a championship celebration. That streak ends tonight.
Southern Professional Hockey League officials will present the Augusta RiverHawks with the William B. Coffey Trophy tonight in a ceremony before the team’s final regular season home game. The annual award goes to the team with the league’s best regular season record, an achievement the RiverHawks locked up last week.
The trophy, shaped as a large cup and topped with an SPHL logo, represents more than just Augusta’s 36-11-7 record. For head coach Brad Ralph, it’s only a piece of a larger puzzle.
“We’re halfway to our goal,” Ralph said. “First place is one. A championship is the next.”
Regardless of the outcome of tonight’s game, the RiverHawks will enter the postseason next week as the No. 1 seed. They’ll need a total of six wins over the course of three best-of-three rounds to claim the league title. League president Jim Combs said the RiverHawks’ overall goal will prevent the players from celebrating too much tonight.
“It’s a superstition in hockey. Nobody wants to touch it,” Combs said of the Coffey Trophy. “The thinking is: if you touch the cup, you won’t win a championship.”
The most significant meaning of this year’s Coffey Trophy recipient comes from RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner, who had to wait just two seasons to get the prize. The Florence, S.C., businessman brought SPHL hockey to Augusta in 2010 and saw his team race to a second-place finish in its inaugural year.
Bill Coffey, the trophy’s namesake, arrived in Augusta that first season and assisted in getting Kerzner’s expansion team off the ground. Though Coffey left the team midway through the season, Kerzner said his efforts were appreciated.
“Bill was an original founder of this league and one of the original founders of the ECHL. He didn’t work for me. He was like a consultant,” Kerzner said. “Once we started, I told him, ‘Bill, I can’t afford you anymore.’ We parted ways, but I have no negatives things about him and no anymosity at all. Bill Coffey did a lot for minor league hockey in the Southeast for many years.”
The city’s first-ever pro hockey trophy, which will be displayed for fans during tonight’s game, might not be Augusta’s lone award for long. The President’s Cup, awarded to the SPHL champion after eight teams compete for the postseason title, could be in Augusta’s future. Four of the past six Coffey Trophy winners have gone on to win the President’s Cup in the same season.
Though tonight’s game and the RiverHawks’ regular-
season finale Saturday night in Columbus, Ga. mean nothing to Augusta in terms of playoff positioning, Ralph said his team won’t hold back.
“I’m not going to rest players if they’re healthy,” he said. “I want to go into the playoffs sure that the guys are game-ready and conditioned. I don’t think too many guys want to sit out anyway.”
Tonight’s game will be crucial for Knoxville, which will spend the final weekend battling Columbus for second place.