If new ownership can’t be found in the coming months, the Columbus Cottonmouths are prepared to cease operations at the end of the current season, owner Wanda Amos said Thursday.
“We have been trying to sell the team, but haven’t found a buyer,” said Amos, who has owned the team for 17 years, including the last 13 as the primary owner.
General Manager Jerome Bechard informed season ticket holders, advertisers and those associated with the team Thursday afternoon that Amos and her husband, Shelby, would be relinquishing their ownership after the season.
“I have loved it and this started with wanting to do something for the community,” Amos said. “But there comes a time when this is not smart business any more.”
The Cottonmouths have lost money nearly every year they have owned the team, most years the losses neared or exceeded six figures, she said. She can retain the Southern Professional Hockey League franchise for a couple of years, but not field a team.
“We have done everything we know to do, but in the end this has never been about making money,” she said.
While the future of hockey is uncertain, Bechard believes new ownership can be secured.
“I am confident that we mean enough to this community that I can find some people with the same passion for the community, for hockey and for the people that Wanda and Shelby have,” Bechard said. “I think this could be a very positive thing. There is a lot of change going on. The Civic Center has a new director and there is a lot of opportunity to do things differently and do things better.”
Amos has informed the other owners and SPHL officials of her decision. She has been working with the league to see if a new owner could be located. Now, that task falls on Bechard.
“I have told Jerome if he can find someone locally, that would be great,” Amos said. “But we have done this for 17 years and have raised more than $1 million for local charities, not counting what we have done to keep team here. This has been a hard decision.”
Bechard, the face of the local franchise since its inception, has watched as the Amoses have struggled to get to this point.
“They have struggled with it every day,” he said. “Knowing the impact we have had on peoples lives like the season ticket holders who have been with us 21 years. People come and go. You got letters from people who are not in Columbus any more. They have touched people in certain ways. It’s just crazy. They have been to funerals. They have seen the impact this organization has had on peoples lives. And that has been difficult to walk away from.”
Another factor in the decision was the Jan. 19 team bus crash outside Peoria, Ill., in which several players suffered serious injuries.
“That has been the most stressful thing for me,” Amos said. “I think a lot about what happened to my players. It has been tremendous stress. And it is far from over because we still have players hurt.”
Throughout their ownership of the Cottonmouths, Bechard has worked for Wanda and Shelby Amos in a variety of roles, including player, coach and general manager.
“I can’t begin to say how good of stewards they have been for the Columbus Cottonmouths organization,” Bechard said this week. “They have been able to keep us in the community and be involved in all types of activities within the community. You know what? They have allowed us to be here for 17 years and I can’t say how much they have poured into this organization emotionally. It has been awesome.”
Amos’ decision will not impact the remainder of this season, Bechard said.
The news comes as the team, which plays its home games in the Columbus Civic Center, is pushing for a SPHL playoff spot. The team is currently in ninth place with a 14-23 record and the top eight teams make the playoffs.
Part of the reason for notifying people now of the Amoses’ decision to sell the team is a season tickets for next season will go on sale Monday. The team is requiring no deposit until June 1.
“We are taking renewals to not only secure your seats for the upcoming season, but to prove to the community and potential investors that we have a strong fan base to build on,” Bechard stated in the email.
Wanda and Shelby Amos, the son of Aflac founder John Amos, and Shelby’s uncle, Sal Diaz-Verson, purchased the team from Martha Morrow 17 years ago after her husband and Cottonmouths founder, Charlie Morrow died of cancer. In 2004, Diaz-Verson kept the East Coast Hockey League franchise and moved the team to Florida. Wanda Amos retained the Cottonmouths name and kept a team in Columbus, joining with franchises in Huntsville, Ala., Knoxville, Tenn., and Fayetteville, N.C., to start the Southern Professional Hockey League.
The decision is difficult for Bechard on a personal level because he has been with the organization since its inception, and in the process grew close to founding owners Charlie and Martha Morrow.
“I have been so fortunate to be involved with ownership groups like Martha and Charlie and Wanda and Shelby,” Bechard said. “My players are not treated like numbers and I have never been treated like numbers. They have treated us like normal players. That is what made Columbus such a special place to play. Wanda and Shelby are just a phone call away if we ever need anything.”
The decision has been difficult, Wanda Amos said.
“This has been a hard decision,” she said. “I have prayed about it and I have cried about it.”