Jerome Bechard has a message for Columbus Cottonmouths fans.
“This is not the end.”
Bechard, the team’s general manager and head coach, spoke by phone from Knoxville, where the Snakes played back-to-back games against the Ice Bears. The Cottonmouths announced last week that the team would suspend operations after the season unless they can find new owners. Wanda and Shelby Amos are trying to sell the team.
The news sounded dire, but Bechard refuses to wave a white flag just yet.
“This is not going to be the end,” Bechard said. “I feel really confident that something positive is going to happen. Change is good. There’s a lot of change going on in Columbus, and I think we’re part of that.”
Maybe Bechard has insider information, or maybe that’s just his heart talking. Or maybe a little bit of both. He certainly has a lot of both.
Bechard is the heart and soul of the Cottonmouths. He has been here since Day 1, first as a player – and fan favorite – for seven years, then one as an assistant coach, and now finishing his 13th as head coach. He added general manager duties a few years back. Now 48, Bechard wanted to transition seamlessly to front office duties exclusively. His plan was to groom Orrin Hergott to take over next season.
All that changed in a few horrifying seconds six weeks ago on an Illinois interstate 20 miles outside of Peoria. The team bus overturned, sending several players to the hospital. Thankfully, none of the injuries were life-threatening. But the crash did have an impact on the team, both negative and positive. Four players are still out with injuries. It’s hard enough to find players in the offseason. It’s even harder to fill holes during the season.
“The accident brought the team together,” Bechard said.
The Cottonmouths were symbolic of a new Columbus, a community revival, if you will. A SPLOST that won with 80 percent approval led to the redevelopment of South Commons. The centerpiece of that was the Civic Center. (To those who remember the old Municipal Auditorium, can you see Elton John performing there?)
Initially, hockey was an afterthought. The plans had to be altered to include an ice rink. But the Cottonmouths were an instant hit – on the ice, at the gate and in the community.
They averaged more than 4,000 fans a night. They won the Central Hockey League championship in just their second season. They were embraced by the community. When they returned from Wichita with the CHL championship, they were met with a police escort on I-185 all the way to the Civic Center.
“It was phenomenal,” said Bruce Garber, the team’s first head coach.
Some of that was dumb luck.
“When we first started, it was perfect timing,” said Garber, “because there was excitement about the new building. I think you had the interest of people to go see the new building and there was a new sport in town. And there was an owner who was a really sharp guy.”
Ah, yes. The unforgettable Charlie Morrow.
Morrow was a rare breed. He was a man of wealth but a man who could relate to anybody. He and his wife Martha had just purchased the RedStixx baseball team before the opportunity to add hockey came along. He came here from Chicago and instantly fit in. He was amazed at the sports history of our community and thought it deserved proper recognition. Thus, we now have the Chattahoochee Sports Hall of Fame, of which he’s a member, very much appropriately so.
“Charlie was such a breath of fresh air for the community,” Garber said.
Cancer robbed us of Morrow much too soon, at age 43 in 1998. His passion for sports and our community can never be replaced.
Wanda and Shelby Amos deserve credit for keeping the Cottonmouths going through lean years.
“Wanda and Shelby have done great things for our organization and our community,” Bechard said.
But what was once shiny and new is now old and faded. The Civic Center is now just another building with overpriced concessions. The Cottonmouths are struggling to make the playoffs and rank eighth out of 10 teams in the Southern Professional Hockey League in attendance, averaging 2,313 per home game. That won’t cut it.
Something needs to change.
Maybe it is indeed time for new ownership.
Maybe we need the threat of losing the team to revive interest.