Cottonmouths rebuilding after last season's disappointment
By KATHY GIERER
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
It is a time for both celebration and rebuilding for the Columbus Cottonmouths as they enter the 2013-2014 Southern Professional Hockey League season.
The Snakes observe their 10th season as cornerstone members of the league while recovering from the loss of many key players.
Columbus, Fayetteville, Huntsville and Knoxville remain of the eight teams from the league's inaugural season in 2004-2005. Since then, the SPHL has dwindled to as few as six teams and stretched this year to a record-high 10, with more expansion in its future.
Joining the original four teams are the Mississippi Surge and RiverKings, along with Pensacola, Louisiana and new teams in Peoria and Bloomington, Ill. Going dark this season are the Cottonmouths' in-state rivals, the Augusta RiverHawks.
Approaching the 10th SPHL anniversary, Snakes head coach and general manager Jerome Bechard reflected on the state of the league and franchise.
"Starting at the top, we have the original four solid franchises that have kept it going through ups and downs. Our ownership groups all get along and all have the right vision in mind," Bechard said. "We need to keep our budgets down and be good partners."
Bechard recalled the journey that began in the summer of 2004.
"I remember when we started with Ryan Aikia and Craig Stahl," Bechard said. "They were the only guys with experience. It's pretty cool to think about the beginning. I'm still learning and growing after 10 years. I know my strength and weaknesses. I know my bark is there, but my bite is not as hard as it needs to be. Everybody needs to be held accountable."
Accountability started with the large number of players Bechard assembled for his 10th camp. Peaking at 24, the roster will stand at 18 on opening night.
"Accountability starts in camp with me, both as general manager and on the ice. I have what I need in the office. Now I need everybody to know their role and be happy with the role I need them to play," Bechard said.
The Snakes have raised the SPHL's President's Cup twice in the league's nine years of existence.
"I'd like to have nine championships after nine years," Bechard said.
"But we haven't missed the playoffs once. I label each year differently. I remember what a great team we had in 2005-2006 and we lost in the first round. My loyalty to my guys has to go away. I kept guys around too long. My loyalty is to the organization."
After a disappointing season a year ago, which included a swift playoff exit, the Snakes must recover from a number of key losses. Gone are veteran goaltender and clubhouse leader Ian Vigier, co-captains Sam Bowles and Orrin Hergott and steady, reliable Derek Pallardy. Forward John Sullivan retired and defenseman Bret Tyler did not return.
Goaltender Andrew Loewen is back for his fourth season, this year as the undisputed No. 1 goalie. Loewen's numbers a year ago included an SPHL-best 1.74 goals-against average and .945 save percentage. Rookie Jesse Chenard will round out the Snakes' goaltending tandem on opening night, but Travis Bosch is still battling for a roster spot. Bechard will continue the goalie competition for another couple of weeks.
On defense, veteran Tom Maldonado returns to anchor the Cottonmouths young corps. Second-year players Chris Bailer and Kyle Johnson are back along with Kevin Kessler. Newcomers include rookies Jason Gray and Andy Willigar.
Up front, the Snakes' top two scorers from last season are back. Matt Gingera and Jordan Braid combined for 92 points in 98 games played. Levi Lind is the longest tenured Snake, entering his fifth season. Also returning are Will Aide, Daniel Amesbury, and Jordan Draper. Dan Bremner joins the Snakes after two seasons in Knoxville. Making their professional debut are Tory Allan, Ian McNulty and Seth Ronsberg.
The Snakes open on the road for the first time in their SPHL tenure. Friday night's opener in Pensacola features a battle between the last two league champions. The Ice Flyers are defending champions and the Snakes hoisted the Cup in Pensacola on April 14, 2012.
The home-opener features the Snakes and Knoxville Ice Bears at the Columbus Civic Center on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.