Just over 3,000 fans enjoyed what may be the final regular season home game in Columbus Cottonmouths history on Saturday night at the Civic Center.
The team defeated Evansville 3-2 to move them within a point of capturing the eighth and final playoff spot in the Southern Professional Hockey League, but more importantly, fans turned out to see what may be the final scheduled home game in 21 consecutive years of hockey in the Fountain City.
After a 16-year labor of love as owners of the franchise, Wanda and Shelby Amos announced their intentions last month to sell the team at the end of the season or cease operations if a new owner cannot be found.
The sport of ice hockey was and still is a novelty to many in the South and has proven to be a tough sell. While the game has made inroads across the region in the past two decades, many of the players on the Cottonmouths’ roster still hail from locales in Canada and the northern part of the U.S.
“I was a hockey fan up in Ohio before we moved south,” said Dave Froberg, a season ticket holder and fan for 20 of the 21 years of hockey in Columbus. “My daughter and wife started coming and they were telling me about Boom-Boom Bechard, and I said ‘you mean Geoffrion, not Bechard.’ They’d say Randy ‘Rocket’ Murphy and I’d say ‘no, Rocket Richard,’ and they’d say ‘no, Magic Marcel Richard.’ So I said I had to go see this.
“I wasn’t expecting anything great, because how good could minor league hockey be in the South? But they were good. It kind of gets in your blood. My wife and I would come here and talk to the players, we were members of the booster club, and all that. The hockey was pretty decent. We just kept coming.”
The team spoiled fans in just their second season, winning the Central Hockey League championship in 1998. It was the first of three franchise championships, equally spaced seven years apart. Columbus captured SPHL titles in 2005 and 2012.
The team is one of the few in the minor leagues that has had steady, local ownership since its inception. Charlie Morrow, who left his presidency at Fannie May Candies in Chicago in 1994 to purchase the Columbus RedStixx baseball team, launched the Cottonmouths franchise in 1996. Morrow died of cancer in 1998, leaving ownership of the team to his wife, Martha.
“Charlie Morrow was a great promoter,” Froberg said. “He came in here and had this whole town hopping about hockey. When Charlie died, the novelty wore off a little bit.”
Martha Morrow sold the team to the Amoses in 2001. They moved the franchise from the CHL to the ECHL in 2001 after several surrounding CHL teams ceased operations. After three years in the ECHL and zero playoff appearances to show for it, the Cottonmouths became one of the original franchises in the SPHL, currently wrapping up its 13th season.
“Wanda and Shelby and Charlie and Martha before that, they’ve done an unbelievable job in keeping the Cottonmouths here for 21 years,” said head coach and general manager Jerome Bechard. “Myself personally, I think the team has put a big impact on people’s lives here, whether they go to every single hockey game or one or two times a year. We’ve raised money for charitable causes. We’ve poured a lot into it and worked hard to keep it here. Hopefully we can move on to the next chapter.”
During the past two decades, however, local interest has waned in the team as measured by attendance. The numbers dwindled from a peak average of 4,680 per game in 1997-98, the franchise’s second season, to 2,258 this season, the lowest average in franchise history and nearly 500 less per game than last season.
“I think it just got stale,” said Kevin Carroll, a season ticket holder since the team’s inception. “People here are just complacent. I watched baseball die here too. They just want to do different things. They’re not really big hockey fans. They go to the games, they talk about coming back, then the weather gets nice outside and they don’t. Once the crowds overall start going down, the crowds leave and the atmosphere starts to suffer.”
The cure for the downturn in attendance? According to many hockey fans in the core of diehards who attend nearly every game, marketing would go a long way in securing the longevity of the franchise.
“When we talk to fans here in Columbus and ask them about hockey, there’s a lot who don’t know they have a team,” said Joe Searcy, a season ticket holder since 2007 and who drives 90 minutes one way from Leesburg, Ga., just outside of Albany, to attend games. “Even though the players do a lot in the community, it’s important to link them with the fans.”
“I’ve been concentrating too long on the bench and hockey side of it,” Bechard said of his dual role with the team. “I think that would be one of the biggest steps, refocusing on getting out. We’re out in the community, but we need to refocus on marketing us and getting us out there and becoming relevant again in Columbus.
“We’ve had guys who are great in the community. There’s so many different variables. I think a lot of the answer is being relevant in the community and putting us on people’s minds. Whether that’s through winning, community service, or radio and TV marketing, it’s a combination of them all.”
A prospective ownership group was in attendance at Saturday’s game, Bechard said, checking out the Civic Center and the game operations. A decision on a purchase from the group in attendance or other interested parties may come as early as next week.
For Bechard, the only individual to be a part of the team all 21 years of its existence in some capacity as a player or coach, it’s a personal mission to find new ownership to keep the franchise alive.
“I’ve spent almost half my life here,” Bechard said. “There’s so many memories, so many friends, and a lot of people in this town who mean a lot to me. If we keep doing the same thing, we’ll get the same results. We need to get back involved in the community, and it starts with me.”