When the 2007-08 ECHL season gets underway, it will mark the 15th season in the circuit for the South Carolina Stingrays. The top two hockey men in the organization have both been with the Stingrays for most of the franchise’s existence, a rarity at that level.
Rays director of player personnel Jason Fitzsimmons has been with the South Carolina team as a player, assistant coach or head coach for 12 of the first 14 years of the franchise’s existence, but he’ll be taking on a new role for Year 15. On Apr. 15, the team announced that Fitzsimmons had stepped down from his duties as the team’s head coach to take a player personnel position within the organization.
“I decided to get out of the coaching end of things,” says Fitzsimmons. “I put forth a proposal to the ownership group, and they accepted it. I will be concentrating my efforts on recruiting and bringing players to the Stingrays.”
Replacing Fitzsimmons as the team’s head coach will be a familiar behind-the-bench figure, Jared Bednar. Bednar spent the last five seasons as Fitzsimmons’ assistant coach. A former defenseman, Bednar spent nine seasons playing professional hockey in the ECHL, AHL and IHL. Six of those seasons were spent wearing the Stingrays sweater.
Having played for the Rays and then having served as an assistant and now the head coach in South Carolina, Bednar is following in Fitzsimmons’ footsteps. Bednar handled a lot of personnel and off-ice matters for the Stingrays last season, so he has a good handle on that side of the game as well.
“I hired him the first day I got the job,” says Fitszimmons of Bednar. “We didn’t grow up together. We lived two hours apart in Saskatchewan, never knew one another until we came down here. And we played together on the ’97 team. He’s just a good loyal guy who has a great head on his shoulders for the game. We seemed to click well off the ice, and thought it would be a good fit. It’s been good.”Now Bednar will settle into his new role
, a role for which he is well suited and well prepared. As for Fitzsimmons, he’s a hockey lifer who is now at a bit of a crossroads after having spent more than a decade in Charleston.
The man known to many as “Fitzie” simply fits in South Carolina, despite his Canadian heritage and upbringing. He and his family have become part of the fabric down in the Low Country virtually since his arrival there more than a dozen years ago. Some of our memories are ultimately eroded by the ravages of time, but not so with Fitzsimmons’ remembrance of his first trip to Charleston.
“I was with [the] Vancouver [organization], and the farm team was Syracuse,” recalls Fitzsimmons. “[Vancouver’s director of player development/scouting] Mike Penny told me, ‘You’re going down to Charleston. It’ll probably take you a day or more to get there, you better get on your way.’ And I said, ‘Charleston, West Virginia? That shouldn’t take us more than a day.’ And he said, ‘No, South Carolina.’ I had never heard of the place.
“We didn’t have Mapquest. You had to stop in each state and buy a map of the state and away you’d go. So we drove all through the night and got here. That was Oct. 1, 1994. I fell in love with it instantly. We were up in Syracuse, and it was 60 degrees. I got down here and it was 85 a day later. I fell in love with it.”
That 1994-95 season was just the second season of Stingrays hockey in Charleston. Fitzsimmons spent the following campaign with Cape Breton of the AHL, but returned to South Carolina for the 1996-97 season, when the Rays won the first of their two Kelly Cup championships. Except for a few brief call-ups to the AHL when he was still active as a goaltender, Fitzsimmons has been in Charleston ever since.
“I miss hockey up north as far as the coverage,” he admits. “Growing up in Canada, you can’t turn TSN on without catching at least 15 minutes of what’s going on in hockey. Now, via Internet you can [down here too]. Up north, people are more critics of the game because they know it more, or they think they know it more. They grew up with it, grew up playing it. Down here, they’re becoming critics of the game because we’ve been around for so long and we’ve had success. They think it just happens automatically, which at times is frustrating. It was a culture shock, but I got my wife down here and we got our green cards. We feel wherever this game takes us, we’ll always have a home in Charleston. This will be our place to come to whenever the game is done.”
Some men are thrust into coaching, and others come to it later in life as a way of staying in the game after their playing careers have ended. Neither is true of Fitzsimmons.1 next page