Familiar face in Columbus hockey scene joins River Dragons coaching staff

Jerome “Boom Boom” Bechard remembers vividly the bus crash that nearly derailed the Columbus Cottonmouths’ season back in 2017.

The team bus, carrying 23 players and hockey support staff, took a turn too quickly on a rain-slicked ramp in Central Illinois. It fell onto its side and slid down an embankment, then hit a ditch. There were no fatalities, but everybody on the bus suffered slight injuries.

That, Bechard said, was when the hockey community came together.

“We had to basically put a team together in a couple of days,” Bechard said.

The Cottonmouths were ultimately able to still play the Peoria Rivermen (they lost 5-4), doing so with a banged-up team, some of whom watched from the stands. However, Bechard remembers fondly his time with the now-defunct Cottonmouths. He won three championships during the Cottonmouths’ run — one as a player, and two as a coach (2004-2005 and 2011-2012).

Now, Bechard is returning to the hockey rink to help coach Columbus’ new hockey team.

Bechard will serve as one of two associate coaches for the Columbus River Dragons, the other being Gary Gill. Jay Croop will also serve as a player/assistant coach, the team announced Friday.

“Just to be involved in (the Cottonmouths), when it was ending, and then have it kind of resurrected and come back with the River Dragons, I’m ecstatic for the community,” Bechard said. “I know that we do have a hardcore group of fans, and we need to expand that. With the new energy and new life here, I think the excitement’s going to be great in the Civic Center.”

Bechard played nine seasons in a Cottonmouths jersey in the ECHL, CHL and SPHL as part of a long playing career, then transitioned from player to coach. When his playing days were done in 2003, he kept the title of head coach of the Cottonmouths all the way until the team ceased operations in 2016-17.

After the Cottonmouths dissolved, Bechard had to move on from hockey.

It took him a few months to figure out that what he would be doing to earn a living locally so that he could remain in Columbus, a community he has grown as fond of as fans have of him. At the suggestion of former Kennon, Parker, Duncan & Davis partner Jack Key, a longtime friend and business acquaintance of Bechard’s, Paul Fincher, the real-estate company’s director of operations, met with him at a Starbucks in 2017.

Bechard made the commitment, pursued his real-estate coursework and passed the licensing test. He’s worked at Coldwell Banker since, and now officially will return to the hockey rink.

Earlier this year, Bechard was announced as the team’s vice president of community relations. It is unclear at this time if he’ll continue serving in that position, he said.

He’ll still work full-time as a realtor, which is why the team will not have one sole head coach, he said. Rather, it will have the two associate coaches to split up duties, so the voices of instruction shouting out to the ice remain somewhat consistent.

“We look forward to getting these player in here and playing that Columbus-style hockey,” Bechard said. “Fast and physical.”

No stranger to coaching hockey, Gill is a Quebec native who is making his second go-around in the Federal League after previously coaching the Rome Frenzy in the FPHL’s inaugural season. Gill has also coached teams in the ECHL (Reading), CHL (Mississippi), and WSHL (Cheyenne and Oklahoma City). His previous stint as the head coach of the Oklahoma City Jr. Blazers is a team he currently owns.

The River Dragons begin their home slate at 7:30 p.m. November 1, against the Elmira Enforcers.

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.