The South Carolina Stingrays have a rich history in the ECHL with championships won in 1997, 2001 and 2009.
But the 2021-22 season was a bit of a letdown: They had 62 points in 72 games, the lowest total in the franchise’s 29 years of existence.
It was this situation that Bear Hughes, the Post Falls native and former Spokane Chiefs captain, entered into during last fall.
While their turnaround season ended with a first-round playoff exit last week, the contributions of Hughes – one of the team’s youngest players – were a major reason for the Stingrays’ success, as the center again demonstrated versatility and skill in another league.
“He did really good things as a rookie, and he found a lot of success scoring with us,” Stingrays first-year head coach Brenden Kotyk said last week. “… He was one of three of our best players in these six playoff games.”
Hughes followed a 59-point regular season with six playoff points despite matching up most of the time against the top lines of the Florida Everblades, the team that ousted the Stingrays from the postseason.
“I told him he was a warrior,” Kotyk said of their exit interview. “He plays through injuries. He doesn’t care where he plays in the lineup. He just seems like he loves hockey. It almost comes natural, almost comes easy for him.”
Hughes came to the game of hockey as a child but didn’t play juniors until 2018, when he was 17 years old. That season, he scored 41 goals and assisted on 25 more for the Spokane Braves of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.
He made his Western Hockey League debut with the Chiefs late that season and joined them full time the next year, when he had 47 points in 61 games.
When the WHL shortened its 2020-21 seasons due to COVID restrictions, Hughes salvaged some of the year by playing in the United States Hockey League on loan to the Fargo Force, where he held his own, accumulating 24 points in 35 games. He spent his 20-year-old season back in Spokane as captain of the Chiefs in 2021-22, with 67 points in 64 games.
Hughes has played hockey against a lot of players, now in four leagues.
“From a hockey standpoint, I was right there (with skills),” Hughes said of the ECHL. “(Compared to juniors) the strength, the speed and the physicality of everything is raised at this next level.”
Yet Hughes, who will turn 22 on May 30, was undaunted. In November, he scored seven goals and had five assists in 10 games. By the end of December, he was leading the team in points (26) and ranked second with 12 goals. He was named an ECHL All-Star.
He finished the regular season with 23 goals and 36 assists for the second-most points on the team, helping the Stingrays win the ECHL’s seven-team South Division with a 45-22-4-1 record.
“I thought (the year) went pretty well as a team and for me personally,” Hughes said.
“I had a really good start and I was buzzing the first couple games. I thought I was playing well pretty much all year. The team did pretty well. … A great year hockey-wise.”
Plus, he said, Charleston, South Carolina, is “a pretty awesome place to live.”
It was the longest stretch Hughes had lived away from home – he plans to be back in Post Falls in the next couple of weeks – but his play marked an important step in his development.
“He can play the defensive side, he plays the penalty kill, he wins the important draws when you need him to in all three zones,” Kotyk said. “He’s got that farm boy strength in him.”
The Stingrays are an affiliate of the NHL’s Washington Capitals, who selected Hughes 148th overall in the 2020 draft. When the Capitals’ rights to him expired last year, Hughes signed a one-year deal with the Hershey Bears, Washington’s AHL affiliate a level above the Stingrays.
The Bears, who are still playing in the AHL playoffs, sent Hughes to the Stingrays at the beginning of the 2022-23 season. Hughes said he understood their decision.
“You see a lot of guys you played against in juniors and you think, ‘I’m as good as that guy,’ ” Hughes said. “But every organization has different pieces … and Hershey had a really deep lineup.
“It was a lot better for my development (to play in the ECHL).”
Kotyk said he’d like to see Hughes add 5 to 15 pounds in the offseason but noted, “I really don’t know what his ceiling is. … I don’t even think he knows. He just continues to get better.”
If Hughes’ trajectory continues up, the AHL would be the next step.
Hughes still hasn’t signed a deal for next season. Hershey could offer him a contract, or on July 1 he could become a free agent.
“I think he needs a chance to prove himself at the AHL level, but it’s really hard to tell,” Kotyk said, adding the choice is not his to make. “… I want him to play at the highest level possible.”