Matt Auffrey didn't hesitate on his decision to call Augusta home even after he was left without a hockey team two years ago.
He first arrived in 2007 to play for the Augusta Lynx, a little more than 500 miles from his native Cincinnati. He didn't know anyone in town, but a year later when the Lynx folded, he couldn't fully cut ties with Augusta. In fact, he started calling it home. The reason was simple.
"I picked up a Southern girl," he said last week. "Now I'm engaged to her."
Auffrey, now one of the more familiar faces on the Augusta RiverHawks' roster, has found a new home far from the comfortable surroundings of more established hockey communities. He met North Augusta resident Whitney Morrison when she was on the Lynx's dance team. Though Morrison said team rules forbid them to date, mutual friends pushed them together and the Southern girl caught the Northern hockey player's eye.
It was an unlikely match, but the two remained together after the Lynx folded. Auffrey left briefly to play with the Florida Everblades in the ECHL and later with the Port Huron IceHawks and Dayton Gems in the International Hockey League.
With minor league hockey back in town, Auffrey can now pursue his hockey career and a family in his new hometown with a fiancée still learning the finer points of the game.
"I've pretty much learned what's going on (at games)," Morrison said. "After you watch it for a while, it's not that hard to follow. As long as he's not bleeding, I'm OK."
Auffrey is starting his fourth season as a professional hockey player. The 24-year-old forward will start the 2010-11 season with at least one fan in the seats simultaneously cheering and worrying.
Morrison, a Midland Valley High School graduate, is studying for a degree in dental hygiene at Aiken Tech. Her preferred choice of higher education might seem an ideal fit for a hockey player, whose teeth can be at risk on the ice.
"I told him after our wedding he can lose as many teeth as he wants," Morrison said. "But I really hope he doesn't lose any before then."
Though fights are more plentiful at the SPHL level, Auffrey's role appears to be heading in a different direction. At 213 games over four seasons as a pro, including brief appearances in the higher-quality American Hockey League, he's the most experienced forward on the RiverHawks' opening day roster.
"Being able to play a couple of games in the AHL and going to a couple of NHL rookie camps and seeing what those guys do, who get paid the millions to play, that's how it's done," he said. "Eating right, getting your rest before a game, doing stuff after practice on the ice instead of just getting off, going to grab lunch and watch The Price is Right . You stay out there and do some sprints, work on some shots."
It's that type of leadership by example that has put Auffrey in the spotlight as the RiverHawks open their inaugural season this weekend. He scored a goal in the team's only home exhibition game last week, and he will enter the regular season with 51 career goals as a pro.
He still doesn't have the experience of a veteran, but on a youth-filled expansion team, he's set up to be a leader.
"Our philosophy initially was to go with a young team because we're an expansion team," coach Brad Ralph said. "We wanted to build with youth so they could grow with us into a winning tradition and a winning organization here."
Win or lose, Auffrey is starting to dig deeper into his new home. Though primarily a hockey guy, he plays golf and follows college football. Both interests have increased since settling down in Augusta, and his routine often includes a round of golf at The River Club in North Augusta.
"I don't mind the weather down here, and being able to golf in the winter is pretty fun," he said.
Choosing a local college football team to cheer for was a bit more difficult with his fiancée cheering for South Carolina, her father an Alabama fan and many other friends pulling for the Bulldogs.
"I just said whoever won between Georgia and South Carolina I was going to take," Auffrey said. "The Gamecocks won, so that's my team."