Original Checkers come full circle

Photo: Charlotte Checkers

📝 by Nick Niedzielski | AHL On The Beat

In the year 2010, Zac Dalpe, Riley Nash, Bobby Sangunietti, Jared Staal and Geordie Kinnear could all be found on the Charlotte Checkers bench.

In the year 2022 — after 12 years of trades and signings and cross-continent moves and retirements and career changes and hundreds and hundreds of games — that sentence is true once again.

“It’s the definition of full circle,” said Checkers COO Tera Black.

That group had a much different look in 2010: Dalpe, Nash and Staal were in their proper rookie years, Sanguinetti was in his third pro season, and all four were looking to live up to their high draft pedigrees. The four would star for three seasons together in Charlotte before scattering across the league and carving out their respective careers.

The allure of the Queen City remained across all those years, though.

“I always say Charlotte is a very sticky web,” said Black. “It’s a very hard place to leave.”

Kinnear, an assistant coach with Charlotte from 2010 to 2016, was the first familiar face to return, coming back as the head coach when the Checkers’ affiliation agreement with the Florida Panthers was solidified.

Then it was Dalpe who re-entered the fold, signing a two-year deal with the Panthers ahead of the 2021-22 campaign and establishing Charlotte as his new home.

“Trying to convince my wife to move 12 hours away and buy a house without looking at it, that was a bit of a leap of faith,” said Dalpe. “But I trusted my gut. It’s nice when you get one right as a husband.”

Always a favorite from his time as a young prospect, Dalpe’s return received a wave of fanfare from a devoted fan base.

“It gives you a warm, welcome feeling,” said Dalpe. “They make you feel like a rock star, like you’re playing in the NHL.”

The reunion started in earnest this summer, when the vacant roles next to Kinnear on the bench were filled with a pair of franchise favorites.

“I was in contact with Geordie all summer and he kind of kept it quiet,” said Dalpe. “He wanted to surprise me with Sangs and Staal. He called me one day and said, ‘I hired two new assistant coaches and you know them both, you’ve played with them both.’ That was fun.”

Staal and Sanguinetti were both in the early stages of their coaching journeys — Staal had been on the bench for the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears for three seasons, while Sanguinetti concluded his playing career in 2020 and had yet to officially make the jump to the coaching ranks — when they got the call offering a return to Charlotte.

“It wasn’t a very hard decision when the opportunity arose,” said Staal. “Geordie helped me a lot as a player, and I knew he would do the same thing with my coaching career. I had my first year married with my wife here, so we knew the city and obviously loved the area. It was a very easy decision career-wise and family-wise.”

Zac Dalpe played three seasons with Charlotte from 2010 to 2013. (Photo: Gregg Forwerck)

“The culture here made it an easy one to want to come back to,” said Sanguinetti, who had previously returned to the Checkers as a player in 2019 to help capture a Calder Cup. “I think that’s important for all of us when you make that decision. You want to be a part of that. For me it was an easy one. The city is great, the fan base is great.”

The last piece to fall into place was Nash, who, after graduating from Charlotte, had carved out an NHL career spanning north of 600 games.

“It’s always had a pretty special place in my heart and in my life,” said Nash. “I love the city, I love the fans, I loved everything about it my first time around here. It set the bar pretty high for pro places to play.”

After playing in six different cities over the past two seasons, Nash inked a two-year AHL deal to settle back where his pro journey started, this time with a family in tow.

“Last year was pretty crazy for me, we were living in a lot of different places,” said Nash. “Having some stability in a good place to play, a good city to live in… The longer you play in your career you start to realize how important those things are. When you have other people that you’re looking after too, it’s not fair to just think about yourself. Our kids are loving it. Like yesterday on one of our days off we were able to walk around for half the day and go play. Things like that, the older I get the more I value them a little more.”

Adding Nash to the mix completed the 2010 reunion, albeit with everyone in vastly different life points from before.

“We were rookies together running around downtown — or Uptown, as you guys call it,” said Dalpe of his experiences with Nash over a decade ago. “Now we’re back here full circle with a different family aspect. It’s super cool to share that with him.”

The allure of playing in a bustling city like Charlotte can encapsulate players of any age range, and the common thread for this group of returners is finding the perfect landing spot for their families.

“These guys are all family guys now and it’s an amazing place to raise kids,” said Black.

“I have two kids now and my wife’s here and they’re enjoying it just as much as I am,” said Nash. “It’s been a really great experience so far.”

“When you can get away from the rink there’s nothing better than to be with your family and really get away and enjoy some beautiful scenery or whatever it may be,” said Staal. “It’s easy to do that here.”

Creating that draw to the Queen City has always been a part of the plan.

“From the very beginning when Michael [Kahn] purchased the ECHL franchise the goal was to have a championship American League franchise in Charlotte, North Carolina,” said Black. “A lot of people looked at him like, ‘I don’t know about that, I don’t know if that’s going to happen.’ And then it did.”

Getting five people back on the same bench together 12 years later is a feat unto itself and a fun dose of nostalgia for a diehard group of supporters in the stands. But it’s also a testament to Charlotte’s emergence as a destination and its magnetic pull to those who pass through.

“If they enjoyed themselves that much when they were young, so much so that they want to come back and have their kids be young here, that says something about the city and about how amazing the entire hockey experience is here,” said Black. “I think it’s super special.”