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In the fall of 1996, Buffalo native Dave Seitz was at a career crossroads. Fresh from earning a valid degree at Clarkson University, Seitz’ knack for scoring goals had landed him his first pro job. He lived an hour from his childhood home of Buffalo, playing for the Sabres’ AHL farm club in Rochester and their promising coach John Tortorella.
“A dream come true for a kid like me,” said Seitz.
But like most dreams, it didn’t quite square with reality.
“The Sabres sent some guys down, and I was going to be sitting in the stands,” he said.
Seitz had to make a choice: get busted down another minor league rung to South Carolina of the ECHL, or sign with Port Huron of the old Colonial League. Port Huron was desperate for a skilled point producer and offered Seitz a blank check. “The guy said, ‘Fill out your own contract.’ I’m thinking — how many zeroes?” Seitz recalled in wonder.
The 5-foot-10 finesse player wasn’t convinced that the ECHL was the right fit. The league known as “The Coast” had a reputation as hockey’s lawless badlands, based on the pop-culture anthem to hockey pugilism, the movie Slapshot.
“You hear horror stories, you see Slapshot 3,000 times, my thoughts were, ‘Oh gosh, I’m going to have to get real tough, real fast.’”
“As I’m talking to my parents and my agent, trying to make the best decision, I get a call from Randy Sieminski, my radio guy at Clarkson. He came down to Charleston (of the ECHL).”
Sieminski gave Seitz the straight dope.
“Listen Seitzy, if you don’t come down here, you’re crazy,” said Sieminski, now the Athletic Director of SUNY Canton. “It’s the Cadillac of the ECHL, and any of the other leagues.”
That call, from a trusted comrade, convinced Seitz to leave the slush of the Great Lakes for the palm tree paradise of Charleston, South Carolina. It wasn’t just the tropical breezes that spun his head.
“I was just amazed at how good the hockey was,” said Seitz. “You get that stereotype — Oh the ECHL, it’s going to be the Hanson Brothers every game. But it was quite the opposite: a ton of skill, great college players, great coaching.”
Stingrays coach Rick Vaive, a three-time NHL All-Star, created a championship culture south of the Mason Dixon line.
“He was one of the big reasons we were successful,” said Seitz.
South Carolina frequently hit the magic 10,000 attendance mark in their downtown Coliseum, and became fixtures on local news.
“There’s three major TV stations, and they covered us exclusively,” said Seitz. “We were the big, hot thing.”
The Stingrays justified the local hype, winning the 1997 Kelly Cup as ECHL champions in Seitz’ rookie year. The kid from Buffalo racked up sensational numbers for the champs — 97 points in 58 games. But underneath the hockey fantasia lurked the bruising side of the ECHL.
John Brophy of Hampton Roads
A six-hour bus-ride up Interstate 95 was blood-rival Hampton Roads, a throwback to “Old-time hockey.” A place where bare-knuckled brawling trumped skill in the mind of notorious coach John Brophy. The man with shock-white hair and a face of granite had been the actual prototype for Paul Newman in the movie Slapshot, and his penchant for on-ice violence had never wavered despite the game evolving around him. Seitz found himself living out scenes from the infamous movie every time the Stingrays played Brophy’s Admirals.
“They would always start three or four of the biggest, toughest guys,” said Seitz. “Guys like (Ron) Majik and Aaron Downey.”
A quick search of hockey’s database reveals that Malik and Anderson racked up staggering penalty minutes between them — 750 the year Seitz first played them, totals that would make the Hanson brothers blush. Vaive, who played for Brophy during his controversial tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs, knew the man and his tactics. He replied in kind.
“We gotta respond, or we would get our teeth kicked in,” said Seitz.
The Stingrays would line up their enforcers for the opening faceoff with the Admirals, a recipe for mayhem.
“As soon as that puck drops, nobody would even touch it,” said Seitz. “Sometimes two guys fighting, sometimes four, sometimes five or six. I don’t know how those guys did it, knowing 10 minutes before the game, as soon as that puck drops, you’re going to have to fight their toughest guy with 10,500 watching. It’s crazy.”
Appropriately, Brophy’s brawlers from Hampton Roads and Vaive’s playmakers from Charleston both won three Kelly Cup championships in the two men’s respective ECHL coaching careers. Seitz continued to ring up spectacular scoring numbers for eight seasons, leading to a berth in the ECHL Hall of Fame and another title for Carolina. He has become a fixture in the community, running the Charleston Beer Works, where stories flow in concert with the amber suds.
“I love talking to the guys after a couple of beers,” said Seitz. “Those are the stories we tell, the big line brawls.”
Fighting is no longer a way of life in the ECHL, but the league known as “The Coast” will always be associated with Paul Newman and his immortal film Slapshot.
Seitz, whose brother and sister migrated down from Western New York to join him in the Carolinas, is forever grateful to Sieminski for picking up the phone a generation ago.
“If he didn’t make the call, I might have been in Port Huron.”
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.