COLUMBUS, Ga. – Friday night at the Columbus Civic Center, the Augusta RiverHawks defeated the Columbus Cottonmouths 2-1 in a shootout. On most nights, the story would be about a tight game between two in-state rivals battling to the end for pride and points in the standings. On this occasion however, there was much more to the contest than a box score can show.
For one evening, the RiverHawks, the Cottonmouths and their fan bases came together as one to take care of one of their own. It was about honoring the memory of the smallest fan, unknown to most, but a member of the extended hockey family.
A week ago, Augusta captain Matt Auffrey suffered a loss far greater than any he has on the ice: Matt’s seven week old son Wyatt passed away from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). What has transpired in the days since has been both inspiring and humbling for the SPHL veteran.
“All the way up to the NHL, down to the SPHL and Federal League, to friends and family we’ve had so much support and love. It just proves how a little kid that comes from a family who’s respected, the hockey family just came through,” Auffrey said. “Nothing will fill that void of losing a child. Everyone that I know throughout the league has been amazing. It helps to fill as much of that hole as possible. It helps me to just come out and play the game.”
When Auffrey’s family announced the establishment of a fund to raise funds for SIDS research, the SPHL family jumped in to help out. Columbus owner Wanda Amos, General Manager/Head Coach Jerome Bechard and the entire Cottonmouths’ organization became the first team outside the RiverHawks to chip in. Columbus donated the proceeds of its Friday night Chuck-A-Puck to the Wyatt Auffrey Fund. When the pucks were sold out, the Cottonmouths put out donation jars that fans gladly filled. Amos also added a donation from the team.
“The Chuck-A-Puck money came from the fans – we raised $1,014 and I made a personal donation from the team,” Amos said. “At the end of the day, we want to beat each other on the ice but we’re a family off the ice.”
Auffrey made the decision to play on Friday, less than a handful of days after laying Wyatt to rest. Before the opening face-off, the fans and players from both teams combined for a standing ovation and stick tap tribute to the two Auffrey men. What transpired over the course of the game itself could have not been written any better in Hollywood.
Following a rebound goal by Columbus’ Tom Maldonado off a Matt Gingera shot,
Auffrey set up a power play goal by Alex Morton to tie the game at one heading into the first intermission. Midway through the second, Cottonmouth Will Aide took a hit and challenged his Augusta opponent. Auffrey stepped in and went toe-to-toe with Aide.The score remained tied through the second and third periods as well as overtime as Augusta’s Robert Moss and Columbus’ Andrew Loewen matched save after save. Heading into the fourth round of the shootout, neither team had scored but that was about to change.
The RiverHawks fourth shooter was none other than Auffrey. He took the puck at center ice, made a move on Loewen and buried the puck in the back of the net. As he watched the red light go on, Auffrey looked to the skies, knowing that Wyatt was watching his dad score what would be the lone goal of the shootout to give Augusta the win.
“I couldn’t have wrote it better. When I see his picture, I just smile,” Auffrey said. “(Looking up was) just to honor him and be proud of the two months he was here and what he did for so many people.”
Augusta head coach Mark Richards thought the way the game ended was a fitting to celebrate Wyatt and the bond between father and son.
“It’s pretty cool (that) he had an assist, a fight and a goal. He had the Gordie Howe hat trick for us. It was almost like fate. I don’t even know how to explain it,” Richards said. “It’s such a good feeling. I don’t know if he gets any relief from it, to enjoy a few seconds with everything that’s happened in the last seven days. It’s nice to see him rewarded in some small way.”
Even Columbus head coach Bechard, a father himself, managed a smile in defeat after the game.
“If anybody scored (the game winning goal), it’s pretty cool it was him. Your heart goes out to him,” Bechard said. “This game really means nothing when it comes down to life. I hate that we lost but it’s all good.”
Loewen, who suffered the loss in net for the Cottonmouths, was just as philosophical as his coach about the outcome.
“That doesn’t play in my mind during the game. At the end I guess that’s a good thing, it’s good for him,” Loewen said, “Hopefully it raises a little bit of morale in Augusta. The town of Augusta has lost a bit of morale. I guess if anyone had to get the game winner it’d be good for him to get it.”
Before the RiverHawks got on the bus to leave, a very appreciative Auffrey had a message of thanks for the people of Columbus.
“I’m just so proud that people respect me enough to honor my kid. I hope that something good can come out of this and someone says I love you to their parents or somebody they haven’t talked to in a while,” he said. “I appreciate it. Hockey is a sport but life is a reality. People have big hearts no matter what happens on the ice. I just want to say thanks to everybody throughout the league and especially everybody in Columbus for what they did for me tonight.”
Anyone wishing to send donations for the Wyatt Auffrey Fund may do by sending them to the RiverHawks office at 712 Telfair Street, Augusta, GA 30901.
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