Jeff Jakaitis returns to play for South Carolina Stingrays

Author: Andrew Miller - postandcourier.com
Date: Oct 16, 2017

Seven-year-old Liam doesn’t understand the pecking order that is professional hockey or how his father, Jeff Jakaitis, makes a living playing a kid’s game.

For Liam, there’s no difference between the NHL, the American Hockey League, the ECHL or playing overseas in Europe.

He only knows that when his father plays for the South Carolina Stingrays, he’s around more and Liam gets a chance to go to the rink and hang out in the locker room.

After leading the Stingrays to the 2015 Kelly Cup finals and earning the ECHL’s MVP award, Jakaitis left the Lowcountry to play in Norway the past two years. The move to Europe meant a better league and more money.

But when Liam asked his dad recently why he couldn’t play for the Stingrays this season, Jeff could only shrug.

Why not indeed.

“I asked him about me playing overseas and what he thinks about that," Jakaitis said. "The first thing he said was, ‘Can’t you play for the Stingrays.’

“He’s at that age when he’ll remember going to the rink and hanging around the guys. Down the line, we will be able to talk about that, and that’s important for me and for him.”

At 34, Jakaitis knows he is nearing the end of his professional career and has accepted the fact that he will probably never play in the NHL.

This summer, when he was deciding where or even if he was going to play again, he gave Liam's suggestion some serious consideration.

Jakaitis had other employment options, including returning to Europe, but with Parker Milner and Adam Carlson — the two Stingray goalies from last season — in the AHL with the Hershey Bears, the club needed a goalie. Stingrays coach Ryan Warsofsky didn't hesitate to give Jakaitis a call.

"Jeff is someone that got us to the Kelly Cup finals, he's someone that we trust," Warsofsky said.

And unless something dramatic happens over the course of this week, Jakaitis is expected to be in net when the Stingrays open the season Friday night against Greenville at the North Charleston Coliseum. 

“Charleston is my home and it has been, really, since my first season here,” said Jakaitis, who first played for the Stingrays during the 2012 season. "I weighed what was out there and the pros and cons of being away versus being able to play at home. Being able to play at home has benefits that outweigh the opportunities I had with other teams and in Europe.”

When Jakaitis is healthy — he is four years removed from the second of two major knee surgeries — he is an elite goalie in the ECHL. Even at this late stage of his career, he still loves coming to the rink every day. But the competitor in him wants to play at the highest level possible and earn as much money as he can before he hangs up his skates.

But the father in him wants to be close to Liam.

“You just never know what can happen in this league,” Warsofsky said. “You never say never, but I thought we’d probably seen the last of Jeff Jakaitis in a Stingrays uniform. Things just kind of fell into place, and here he is. He’s a guy that takes really good care of his body, and he’s looked good in practice.”

Jakaitis isn’t sure how he’ll feel when he takes the ice Friday night. Sure, there will be a flood of memories, most of them good, but having Liam in the stands watching will make up for any extra money he might have missed out on in Europe.

“I’m sure there will be some nerves,” Jakaitis said. “When I’m overseas, it’s just me and I’m all by myself. It’s still fun, I enjoy the challenge, but having Liam here, that element is really important to me at this point in my life. We’ve done the distance thing for two years, and I think we’re ready for some extended time together.”

In three seasons with the Stingrays, Jakaitis compiled a 58-25-9 record with 2015 a magical season. The Stingrays set the ECHL mark with 23 consecutive wins, made it to their fourth Kelly Cup final, and Jakaitis established a new league shutout streak of more than 321 consecutive minutes.

Despite his individual success and the team’s run to the league finals, the one memory Jakaitis still cannot purged from his psyche is the team’s 6-1 loss to Allen in Game 7.

“As good of a year as we had that season, it ended on a really sour note,” Jakaitis said. "It’s two years later and it still hurts.”

For now, Jakaitis isn’t worried about tomorrow or next week. Whatever the future holds and where he ends up this season is yet to be determined. He's just going to enjoy the moment and his time with his son.

“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” Jakaitis said. “I’m here now. I could be here the whole year, I could be somewhere else next week. I just want to enjoy my time here and do my best and hopefully help this team win a few games.”

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