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Mississippi Coast celebrates new beginning with Sea Wolves

by Brian Compton

The Mississippi Coast Coliseum was a shell of itself after the storm, and head coach Steffon Walby frequently worked the phones at the team’s office surrounded by construction workers.
On Saturday, Oct. 27, the Mississippi Sea Wolves dropped a 5-2 decision to the Reading Royals at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.

The average person probably glanced at the score, and then moved on. It was just another game.

But anyone aware of the situation in Biloxi knows it was much, much more than that. And even though the Sea Wolves came up short on the scoreboard, they came up huge in the hearts of the 6,714 who showed up to celebrate the coming together of a community that dealt with devastation not so long ago.

Last Saturday marked the first game in roughly two years for the Sea Wolves on their home ice, as the franchise was forced to close up shop in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Mississippi Coast Coliseum was a mere shell of itself after the storm, and head coach Steffon Walby frequently worked the phones at the team’s office this summer surrounded by construction workers.

Naturally, Saturday’s pre-game festivities were more glamorous than usual, and rightfully so. This was much more than a hockey game. This was about life. It was about courage. It was about a group of people who were forced to get up, dust themselves off and, as Walby told us a couple of months back, “fight the fight.”

The town celebrated the return of the Sea Wolves, and then had Mississippi native Brad Arnold – the lead singer from the hit group Three Doors Down – perform the national anthem. And then defenseman Chris Cava – who played for the Sea Wolves before Mother Nature socked the region in the jaw – scored the game’s opening goal a little more than three minutes into the contest, sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy.

In the end, it was only fitting that either Cava or Travis Lisabeth – who also played in Mississippi prior to Katrina – scored the first goal at the reconstructed MCC.

“It just made me feel so good,” said Cava, a seven-year veteran. “Travis and I … one of us had to do something. It just turned out that way, and it made me feel really good. The adrenaline was just pumping. I really couldn’t believe it, actually, when I scored. I was just so excited. It felt good for me and I know for the fans and coach, and everybody playing just to get that first goal.”

It was only moments before Cava’s tally that Walby needed every ounce of emotional strength to fight back tears. Fittingly, he was recognized before the game for everything he’s done for Biloxi and the surrounding communities since Katrina. A Wisconsin native, Walby could have easily gone home after the storm. Instead, he stayed in the area and helped rebuild it.

“It was awesome, right from the get-go,” Walby said. “My entire family was there. We had anywhere between 100, 150 family members, friends. They certainly had a great opening ceremony. All of the ownership, the Coliseum commissioner, the mayor … the very first thing they said was it couldn’t have happened without the ownership group, the fans and of course, me. There was a standing ovation of 6,700 people, and it was pretty tough to hold back the emotions. You just knew that was something that couldn’t have been ever scripted or duplicated. It was a special event.”

Not even the loss to the Royals could ruin the night. The fact that the Sea Wolves were playing on their home ice was a victory in itself. Mississippi won because, well, it played.

“Whatever the score was, I knew it was going to be an overall win,” Walby said. “Certainly, we couldn’t have asked for anything better, from the office staff of the Coliseum, from my players – they were nervous. They knew how much was on the line and what was to be expected. I think it showed for the first little bit.”

From a player’s perspective, Cava admitted there were plenty of pre-game jitters flying around the Sea Wolves’ locker room. Obviously, Walby’s players desperately wanted to pick up a victory for their coach, their fans, for the area in which they currently reside. Sometimes, too much adrenaline can pull you away from the task at hand. To their credit, the Sea Wolves rebounded less than 24 hours later with a 4-3 shootout win against the Pensacola Ice Pilots. Who was responsible for Walby’s first win as a head coach? Lisabeth, who got the winner in the shootout.

Hello, destiny.

“I know a lot of guys were nervous and all that, but we bounced right back on Sunday and won a game in a shootout,” Cava said. “Hopefully, we can get on a roll. I thought the boys played well. We took a couple of shifts off here and there, and that’s what cost us. I don’t think we were too much out of place for a team that had to be rebuilt.”

Walby believed it was only fitting that Cava and Lisabeth contributed on the score sheet the way they did last weekend – one that nobody in the Biloxi area will soon forget.

“He was the first guy re-signed after this whole thing, so that was a story in itself,” Walby said of Cava. “For the team’s first win, and my first win in my coaching career, Travis Lisabeth buries the shootout goal to win it. You can’t script one single event each night, but it certainly made for a pretty cool weekend.”

It will be interesting to see how the Sea Wolves respond, now that the special weekend is behind them. The 1-3 squad began a four-game homestand last night at Gwinnett, losing the game 6-2.

“He was the first guy re-signed after this whole thing, so that was a story in itself,” Walby said of Chris Cava.

“To me, you can have a three-game losing streak at the beginning of the year, the middle of the year or the end of the year; for us, it might have been the first three games,” Walby said. “I know our division is going to be very tough. I know a lot of guys still have summer hockey in their blood. Every time that we step on the ice, it’s business. Our goal is moving forward and moving on. We put the big win behind us.”

Business as usual – three words that Walby hasn’t been able to say in two years. Unquestionably, he’ll welcome them with open arms. It all started Sunday morning, just hours after an entire community welcomed back a team it missed so tremendously.

“I came into the rink, and it was like a ghost town,” Walby said. “There wasn’t the hustle and bustle or the craziness. It was a routine that I had been used to for the last two or three playing seasons. It’s business as usual.”

Indeed, the focus has switched from getting the arena ready for opening night to getting it ready for playoff hockey. Cava is hopeful that the MCC will be hosting some games come April. After all, hasn’t Walby earned that much?

“Hopefully, Walbs will get what he’s been dreaming for,” Cava said. “I know he’s been waiting for this for a long time. He could have went somewhere else and done something the last couple of years, but he wanted this to be his show, and it has been. I think he’s going to do a good job by bringing a couple of more players here and there. I think we’ll be a contender this year.”

After what Mississippi has already accomplished, it sure would be foolish to count it out.

Brian Compton can be e-mailed at:

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