Looking Back: Cottonmouths to suspend operations: “Unfortunately, the cup is empty.”
Staring this fall, Columbus area hockey fans will have a home team to cheer for again.
Columbus Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to enter into a five-year agreement that will bring hockey back to the city.
Under the terms of the agreement, a yet-to-be-named franchise of the Federal Hockey League, one of five professional leagues operating in the U.S., will play 30 games at the Columbus Civic Center starting late October or November.
Jon Dorman, director of the Civic Center, told council he had been working for a long time to bring hockey back to the area.
“It puts another 30 event days back on our schedule, which helps our part time employees who rely on the additional income for their families, for groceries,” he said.
The news comes almost two years after the owners of the Columbus Cottonmouths, a Civic Center tenant since the facility opened in 1996, announced play of the minor league team would be suspended until a new owner could be found.
Wanda and Shelby Amos owned the team for 17 years, taking over in 2001 after the original owner, Charlie Morrow, died in 1998. His widow Martha held the team together in between.
This also is not the first time someone has shown interest in bringing hockey back: a New York City businessman sought rights to the Cottonmouths in 2017, but failed to reach a deal with the SPHL.
‘It never made money’
Wanda Amos said Tuesday that the decision to give up the team was down to two main factors.
“We lost money. It never made money. To begin with, when I bought the team it was basically to keep it here for the community,” she said. “When the team joined the SPHL (Southern Professional Hockey League), the losses got significantly greater.”
The other factor was an incident that shattered the team’s confidence and made it hard to travel to the other 30 or so games they played on the road.
On January 18, 2017, the team’s charter bus crashed on an interstate ramp between Interstate 74 and Interstate 55, about 20 miles from Peoria, Illinois. The Cottonmouths had 24 people in their traveling party. No one suffered life-threatening injuries.
But it signaled the end for Amos.
“The emotional, financial situation...I was just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she said.
Fan favorite Jerome “Boom-Boom” Bechard spent two decades of his life playing, coaching and managing the Cottonmouths.
‘Hardcore’ hockey fans in Columbus
Once his career with the team ended, he started a new venture in real estate with Columbus Coldwell Banker affiliate Kennon, Parker, Duncan & Davis.
He’s also been awaiting the day when professional hockey would once again claim territory in the Chattahoochee Valley.
“There is a very hardcore group of hockey fans here in Columbus I think would be very excited of the news that there is hockey coming back,” Bechard said Tuesday. “Really I think the biggest thing is trying to expand that hardcore group that we had to get the franchise in a good financial situation.”
Bechard said that though he is not currently working with FHL to bring the sport back to Columbus, he’s ready to help however he can.
“I would like to think that we’ll sit down at some point when everything is settled down and communicate and see what and where I would fit in, I would definitely like to do that and see what their model is and see where it goes,” he said.
To be successful, Bechard said the franchise will have to be sure to raise awareness in the community of its presence.
He said there also needs to be great production and entertainment value. It’s a business, he said, with similar challenges as any business.
“It’s kind of cyclical, you go through your ups and downs and peaks and valleys with every business, and whatever business you’re in, you’ve always got to stay on top of people’s minds,” he said. “You just constantly have to reinvent yourselves and reinvigorate everybody in the organization as far as staff wise, and have that permeate out to the community and be involved in the community.”
While the owners took a loss year after year, the Cottonmouths remained loyal to the community and were constantly involved in charity work during the team’s 21 consecutive seasons.
“We raised close to $1 million for Children’s Miracle Network alone, and we tried to do a charity at every game, and I’m very proud of that,” Amos said.
Amos said the manager of the team had reached out to her about the possibility of the FHL coming to Columbus.
“I told him I will do everything I can to help them, because obviously if hockey can come back to Columbus, we’ll do everything we can,” she said. “I told him the good and bad things, and things he needed to do for the community, and I’ll go down there and get season tickets.”
A schedule for those games has yet to be nailed down as the new franchise works to build a team and a new name.
The lease agreement
The Civic Center is owned and operated by the city.
The lease agreement approved by the council Tuesday outlines a similar agreement to the Cottonmouths’, though rent for Friday and Saturdays has been increased from $3,000 to $3,600.
The team will receive an incentive of 75 cents for every scanned ticket over 2,000 on Fridays and Saturdays and 50 cents over 2,000 Sundays to Thursdays. The Cottonmouths were paid 50 cents for attendance over 65,000 scanned tickets at the conclusion of the season.
The team will retain all advertising revenues for on-ice, dashers and back-lit signs within the seating area, while the Civic Center will retain all other advertising revenue throughout the venue to include all outer concourse signage, scoreboard and eventually naming rights revenues.
Dorman said the center expects to see an annual average profit for the season between $75,000 and $95,000, depending on attendance.
Dorman said ticket sales at the civic center are up tremendously.
“We’ve sold 100 percent more tickets in the last 12 months than we did in the previous 12 months,” Dorman said.
Dorman said the team won’t assume the old name and will most likely hold a “name the team” contest.
The council on Tuesday also approved a budget amendment for an additional $1 million to cover the cost of events at the center for the remainder of the year, which will be balanced out by revenue made at the events.