The Charleston Junior Stingrays won’t soon forget their experience at the Bell Capital Cup.
As their amazing run through the Major Peewee A division advanced, the South Carolina team found itself playing for the championship on the same ice as the NHL’s Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre.
“When we walked down the tunnel and were in the locker room of the visiting team, we said, ‘One of you guys could be sitting where Sidney Crosby sits,’” co-head coach Matt Mons said. “Their eyes got as big as saucers.
“When we walked to the bench, they stood and looked up at the scoreboard, which had a welcome for both teams. They were a little awestruck.”
The Canadian Tire Centre’s 19,153 capacity is just a little bit bigger than the 750 that can fit into the Junior Stingrays’ Carolina Ice Palace, but the Junior Stingrays didn’t let that distract them once the puck dropped.
And upon shutting out the Nepean Raiders (Ontario) 3-0 in the final on Jan. 1, the Junior Stingrays got to experience their own Stanley Cup-like moment.
“The big trophy will have their names engraved on it, and every kid got their picture taken with it,” Mons said. “The tournament started in 2001. When you add all the teams, it gets bigger just like the Stanley Cup.
“We were ushered into a room where the kids saw the trophy and the banners. The kids asked, ‘We’re going to get our names on one of these?’ It was funny.”
Teams from South Carolina aren’t necessarily known for going up to Canada and winning big hockey tournaments, but neither Mons nor his fellow co-head coach, Jason Hehr, were fazed when they made the trek to Ottawa for what would be a six-day trip. Mons is from the Ottawa area and coached a team in the tournament eight years ago, while Hehr played minor pro hockey, so they had an idea what to expect in this type of environment.
“If you have your core group of kids like we have for the last three or four years and you provide good coaching, proper skill development and proper competition, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Mons said. “After all, ice is ice.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Junior Stingrays have a long history playing together. Ten of the 15 players on this championship team have been with the Charleston Youth Hockey Association for 10 years.
“We’ve been on the ice with them since there were 4 years old,” Mons said.
For those who follow the CYHA, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that the Junior Stingrays could compete with the northern teams. Since South Carolina is a non-traditional hockey state, the CYHA has emulated its northern counterparts in order to help grow the association.
That begins with try-hockey-for-free and learn-to-skate days, Mons said. In addition, the CYHA has 70 kids in its 8U Little Rays program, and they follow USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
“I think anytime you have small-area games plus more touches with the puck and doing different stations of skill development, it helps the kids,” Mons said. “You have that window during which you’re able to gain all those skills. Between 4 and 5 and 11 is when it’s necessary to get all the skills.
Further, a relationship with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays helps raise awareness for the youth program.
“We have a lot of visibility,” Mons said. “Our younger teams skate between periods. Every time one of our teams does something notable, they’ll go out on the ice for the national anthem with the big team, and that helps promote youth hockey.”
Mons considers the CYHA a “small association” because it includes 300 kids, and it has stiff competition from other popular sports such as soccer, basketball and baseball. But as the Junior Stingrays showed in Ottawa, they have a program that can compete with anyone.
“To have that many kids in our program is pretty good,” Mons said. “The fact that our closest road trip is three hours away goes to show the dedication of the parents and the kids.
“The time and commitment on the part of the parents is commendable.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.