Jacksonville Sports Day

WEEKEND FEATURE: A Rookie’s Life Inside the ECHL Bubble

By Nick Harvey

While the circumstances for the 2020-21 ECHL season are different, a few South Carolina Stingrays rookies would agree that their experience with the club so far has been nothing short of great.

The league’s Return To Play Protocol has been put in place to monitor players and keep them healthy throughout the season. Added precautions have made these new players feel safe and more comfortable in unprecedented times. First year forward Darien Craighead had nothing but positive things to say about his experience in the “bubble” so far.

“They’ve done a great job,” Craighead said. “It’s almost like a college atmosphere which keeps us close together and I think that helps with team chemistry as we move along.”

As different as this experience has been, especially for rookie players in the ECHL, forward Frédéric Létourneau has found a way to enjoy the outdoors in a way that gives him the freedom to feel more normalcy outside of the rink.

“We’ve been golfing a lot, and the walks outside, with the weather that we have, it’s been really nice to get the chance to do that,” Létourneau said. “It’s definitely not the lifestyle Stingrays players are used to having, but I’m here and I get to play hockey. There’s probably a few hundred people who want to be in my spot, and I’m thankful to be playing here.”

The Bowling Green State University graduate has grown very fond of Charleston. He’s found the city’s scenery and history have made it a lot easier to enjoy being distanced and outdoors, while going out to explore with his roommate, fellow rookie forward Jade Miller.

Miller is also new to playing hockey in the south, previously spending all his winters in the northern part of the country where the weather is much colder.

“The unfamiliarity of it all, where you go to the rink for practice and leave in a short sleeve t-shirt and shorts, it’s definitely not something I was used to, but I adapted quick and I love it,” Miller said.

Although Miller has been more keen to see the history, Létourneau has become quite a fan of the Netflix TV series, Outer Banks, which of course was filmed right here in Charleston. The two hope to eventually take in the set where the show has been filming.

“I haven’t gone there yet, but Jade and I are definitely planning on making a trip over there in the future,” Létourneau said.

As much history as there is for Charleston to offer, an avid fan of television or movies has plenty to see for iconic scenes in the city of Charleston.

A common theme among these three rookies has been the effort to continue to stay in contact with loved ones and friends back home. As fortunate as these players are to enjoy a season of professional hockey, there are many sacrifices being made as they spend time apart from their families for a large majority of the year.

Craighead started his days of travel early, playing junior hockey and living with a billet family as he moved his career forward and climbed the ladder through different leagues.

“I’m pretty used to the whole travel aspect,” Craighead said. “I’ve been billeting since my 16-year-old year, so I normally spend my summers at home, although this past year was the longest I’ve been home since before I began playing junior hockey. The weirdest part has been the holiday season. I’ve never been away from my family for Christmas, but with the technology we have now I just got to hop on facetime and talk with them for a little bit. It was different, but you just have to take it in stride and figure it out as you go.”

One of the biggest changes for the Stingrays this season has been the limitations on occupancy numbers that are allowed home games. Although the number is smaller than normal, there has been no lack of booming noise and cheer from the team’s fan base, and Létourneau has taken notice.

“Playing a few games in Alabama last year, I hadn’t realized how passionate hockey fans were in the south,” Létourneau said. “Charleston has been great, and I had been told before I signed that if I was going to play in the ECHL, especially in the south, that Charleston was the place to be, and that has held true this season.”

Craighead was used to a packed house, coming from a strong Northern Michigan University fan base in college. He’s been happy to see the loyalty and passion the Stingrays fan base has for its team.

“The diehard fans are something that players love, and it’d be nice to be able to chat and get to know them more,” Craighead said. “Hopefully things will work out better and we can do those kinds of things again soon.”

The league’s format appears as a success, and the rookies are appreciative for the opportunity they have been given. While it requires more sacrifice than ever, their willingness to be isolated for nearly seven months shows their true dedication to the sport and its fans.

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