Saginaw Spirit refuse to let tragedy define them

Ken Campbell
Terry Trafford

SAGINAW, Mich. – Cody Payne buried his best friend last week. He plays for a team that has gone to two funerals in the past two months for two people whose combined ages was younger than 22.

Cody Payne and his Saginaw Spirit teammates had every reason and every excuse to mail in their first-round playoff series against the powerful Erie Otters. Everyone would have understood if their statement to the hockey world was that they had endured enough and they’d prefer to go quietly into the night.

But not this team. It was only fitting that Payne, a prospect for the Dallas Stars, would score in overtime to give the Spirit a 7-6 win over the Otters in Game 3 of their playoff series six days after Terry Trafford, their teammate and their friend, was laid to rest. In a death that made headlines around the world, Trafford took his own life on or about March 3 after being sent home from the team for breaking team rules.

Former NHLer Greg Gilbert, who coaches the Spirit, thinks his team is pretty special. And he’s right. Less than two months before Trafford died, the 22-month-old daughter of equipment manager Brian Allen suddenly died. Before the season even began, they found out they would be without defenseman Dalton Young, who was charged with assault and home invasion after allegedly assaulting his girlfriend and stabbing her father in the back.

“They’ve gone through more stuff this year than a lot of hockey players ever go through in their lives,” Gilbert said. “We’ve had a lot of talks about direction. When things like this happen, there are two ways to go. One, is you learn from it and become stronger for it and the second is to fall by the wayside and feel sorry for yourself. And that’s one thing this group doesn’t do. They don’t feel sorry for themselves.”

Heaven knows they could have. We’re talking about teenagers here, dealing with body blow after body blow of grief. But these are not your garden-variety teenagers. They’re playing with the best players in the world in their age group because they have a unique ability to focus. Even through this it has been difficult, but there is a sense in the Spirit room that they are playing for their fallen teammate.

“It was definitely for Terry,” said Payne, who played minor hockey with Trafford on the Mississauga Reps and was reunited with Trafford when he was traded to Saginaw over the summer. “Every shift is for Terry. Everything we do is for Terry. Our coach has stressed to us that a lot of eyes are going to be on us and if we lose these games, a lot of people are going to say they mailed it in because of everything they’ve been through. But we don’t want to be that team. We want to play with a purpose.”

The Spirit is still down in the series after losing the first two games in Erie. Both were one-goal games and Game 2 went to overtime. But with two more games on home ice before the series shifts back to Erie, the Spirit gained an enormous amount of momentum with their win. The Otters, led by wunderkind Connor McDavid, finished the season second overall in the Ontario League with 106 points, went 8-0-0 to finish the season and averaged almost a goal a game more than the Spirit did this season.

It’s a tall order, almost an impossible one, to expect the Spirit to win this first round. But playing on the strength of inspiration and emotion can accomplish a lot, particularly with young people. Gilbert said that just before the playoffs, all the players and the coaching staff on the Spirit got down on their knees and talked about all the adversity they’ve faced this season.

How do they keep getting up?

“It’s hard, but we’re a family and we have to stick together,” Gilbert said. “Life isn’t fair. You can cower or you can face it head-on. You can run away and run all the way up Mount Everest, but you can’t run away from these things. You have to face them and we’ve done that.”

Photo by: Ken Campbell

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.