The Augusta RiverHawks suffered through tragedy, a long losing streak and an uncertain future in a single season, and the prevailing thoughts as their season ended were support and bonding.
The RiverHawks wrapped up their season at 19-31-6, finishing last in the SPHL and missing a playoff spot by four points. Despite sitting seven points out of the eighth and final playoff spot with a month left in the season, Augusta fought to within three points entering the final week.
The RiverHawks were unable to inch any closer, getting eliminated with two games left.
The RiverHawks focused on the positives after their last home game Friday. No matter which direction the conversation turned, recollections drifted back to the support of Matt and Whitney Auffrey.
The Auffreys lost their 7-week-old son Wyatt to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Feb. 16. Matt Auffrey, the team captain and 2011-12 league MVP, didn’t play that Saturday night but appeared after the game to a standing ovation at James Brown Arena. He returned the following night, recording an assist.
“The guys stood with me through the things I went through,” Auffrey said. “This is one of the best group of guys I’ve ever played with. The community and team, it was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
A memorial fund was opened in Wyatt’s honor, with donations going toward SIDS research. The RiverHawks auctioned off jerseys after a game, and proceeds went to the fund.
“As human beings, more importantly than as hockey players, what we went through with Matt’s son, our guys showed a lot of character and really bonded around him tighter than they were before,” coach Mark Richards said. “The support for him, it’s still there. I still get letters for Matt. It really hasn’t stopped yet.”
“I gained so much more respect for him, not that I didn’t already before, but I gained a lot for his family,” alternate captain Dennis Sicard said. “We love him to death.”
The RiverHawks struggled to catch up after starting the season 0-8-1. Compounding their problems was the NHL lockout, which lasted into January. The RiverHawks saw 10 players leave for a higher level and remain, including leading scorer Shawn Skelly.
After reaching a 1-9-1 record, the RiverHawks fired first-year coach Rob Miller, replacing him with team president Richards.
“At the beginning of the year, it started out rough for us, but that happens to teams,” Auffrey said. “We turned it around a little bit. Mark stepped in and he did a really good job, really brought the team together, and we gave ourselves a chance. We just came up short a little bit.”
Near the end of the season, the RiverHawks became displaced after the arena’s cooling system failed, causing the ice to melt. The team was forced to play its final eight home games at Augusta Ice Sports Center in front of season-ticket holders and sponsors.
The arena situation remains unresolved. Arena management has spent nearly a month gathering information on maintenance and replacement costs. The Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority is scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss it further.
In the meantime, the RiverHawks have played under a cloud of suspicion as to whether they will return to Augusta next season. So far, there have been no answers.