Steffon Walby had everything going for him.
|The Mississippi Sea Wolves will officially rejoin the ECHL after a two-year absence due to extensive damage to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum from Hurricane Katrina. |
After years as a player/assistant coach with the Mississippi Sea Wolves, the franchise promoted its former two-time 40-goal scorer to head coach on July 27, 2005.
Walby went right to work, trying to put together a roster that could compete for a Kelly Cup championship.
But Mother Nature had other plans. Roughly a month after getting the job, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc and devastation on the Gulf Coast, and the city of Biloxi was right in the middle of it. The Sea Wolves could not compete in the ECHL’s upcoming season, as the Mississippi Coast Coliseum suffered substantial damage.
In all likelihood, Walby’s tremendous opportunity had been completely swiped from him. The Sea Wolves were probably no more. After all, Biloxi and the surrounding neighborhoods had much larger problems than the area hockey club. Walby was worried about the direction he and his family were headed.
“I was really concerned,” Walby said. “I found myself wondering where life was going to take us. Was this really the path I should have gone down?”
While the Sea Wolves were on hiatus, Walby stayed involved in the game as much as he could. His contract with Mississippi saw to it that he was still being paid, so he spent September of 2005 working with Bob Hartley’s Atlanta Thrashers during training camp. Meanwhile, though, so many people in Biloxi were suffering. Walby decided to return to lend a hand in the reconstruction.
“The very last day of training camp, I decided that it wasn’t really for me and that I needed to be with my family and go back to Mississippi and fight the fight,” Walby said. I’ve pretty much been here ever since. I’ve seen people at their worst. I’ve lived it myself. I’ve sweat through those days with people in my community. I’ve battled through the trenches with insurances, with the coliseum here, with getting a team back with the ECHL.”
And now, two years later, the Sea Wolves are ready to make a comeback. Come October, Walby finally gets to conduct his first training camp as a head coach. Sometimes, things are just meant to be. In this case, though, Walby, along with the entire Biloxi community, put in a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears to see to it that the Sea Wolves remained in their lives.
The work has paid off. The team’s locker room was slated to be demolished on Wednesday and rebuilt for the upcoming season and beyond. Season-ticket sales are higher now than prior to Katrina despite the fact that Mississippi’s staff has been working in an improvised atmosphere for several months. But come October 27, when the Sea Wolves play their first game in two years, it will all be worth it.
“I can’t begin to tell you how nervous and excited I am,” said Walby, who turns 35 in November. “To be honest with you, the biggest challenge has been getting a professional atmosphere around myself, and around for these players. We’re still in cement walls, cement floors, makeshift offices. We’re starting construction on our locker room within a week.”
Walby has already begun construction of his hockey club, as he acquired defenseman Mathew Deschamps this week from the Phoenix Roadrunners for cash. Walby also made a splash in the free-agent pool with the signing of veteran defenseman Chris Cava on June 7.
Surprisingly, Walby said it hasn’t been all that difficult to recruit players to an area that is still recovering from the horrific storm.
“The recruiting, actually, has been one of the easier parts,” Walby said. “A lot of people have shown concern about the area, but they see the need for entertainment. They see a place for them to enhance their professional careers. They like everything they hear as far as what the coast can bring them. A lot of them weren’t familiar with it, but I’m trying to make it the best I possibly can make it to allow these guys to come down here and play hockey.
“My apartments are going to be all brand new,” he added. “Everything about it was real easy because everything’s brand new. I thought my biggest challenge was going to be comforting people. It’s not up to 100 percent par, but it’s well on its way. When it comes right down to it, guys just want to play hockey and have the best opportunity, and that’s what we’re providing down here for them.”
They’re also providing their surrounding community with something else -- hope. Even if the Sea Wolves lose their home opener against the Reading Royals, they’ve still won. Smiles will be aplenty at the arena on that special night.
“Every time something reopens, you get that sense of taking your licks back at Katrina,” Walby said. “She knocked us down, but she didn’t see knock us totally out. Our owners saw the vision of the opening night. We had hundreds of season-ticket holders that kept their money in. It’s not going be so much about a hockey game, but it’s to see a community finally rally around something. When those players step out on the ice for the first time … I’m starting to get chills just talking about it, but it’s going to be emotional. A lot of people will shed the tears. Other than winning a championship, you’ll probably never get another feeling like it.”
Speaking of a championship, Walby is aiming for one. Yes, this year. He’s using the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints as inspiration, and why not? The Big Easy also was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and the Saints responded by coming within one win of a trip to the Super Bowl.
“All the guys I have signed have the idea of getting up and out of here,” Walby said. “My mindset isn’t expansion; my mindset is to win the whole thing. That’s a lofty goal, but at the same time, why wouldn’t we be able to do it? Look at the Saints last year. The whole town rallied behind them. There’s no reason why that can’t be us. The only difference is we don’t play 16 games, we play 72. We’re going to have our nights when we stumble and we’re going to have our losing streaks and our droughts. But when it’s all said and done, this will be a team that people will be aware of. We’re not going to be taken lightly.”
As for his own club, Walby won’t be interested in excuses. His players will put on their hard hats and go to work every night. After all, their lives have been a heck of a lot easier than those who were affected by this natural disaster.
“When somebody looks at me and gives me the look out on the ice like; ‘This is too hard, I don’t feel like doing it,’ I’m going to say, ‘You guys don’t have it that hard. Trust me.’”
Around the ECHL -- The Trenton Devils dealt goaltender Joel Martin to the Elmira Jackals on Wednesday in exchange for future considerations. The trade is likely an indication that the Devils will be sending two contracted goaltenders to Trenton, which also signed rookie forward Tony Zancanaro and defenseman Matt Cohen. … The Bakersfield Condors signed gritty defenseman Steven Later. … The Charlotte Checkers have extended their affiliation agreement with the New York Rangers and the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolf Pack. … The Johnstown Chiefs signed rookies Michael Cohen and B.J. Crum. … The Las Vegas Wranglers re-signed All-Star defenseman Jason Krischuk. … The Alaska Aces inked right wing Eric Neilson. … The Stockton Thunder signed left wing Andy Contois. … Reading re-signed defenseman Shawn Germain, while the Victoria Salmon Kings re-signed blue liner Phil Cole. … Defenseman Jonathan Paiement will be returning to the Texas Wildcatters next season. Texas also inked veteran forward John McNabb. … The Columbia Inferno signed left wing Daniel Sparre.
Brian Compton can be e-mailed at: email@example.com.