After 21 seasons of professional hockey, the Columbus Cottonmouths have suspended operations for the 2017-18 season, Southern Professional Hockey League officials confirmed on Wednesday.
The official announcement has been anticipated for several months after Cottonmouths owner Wanda Amos announced a month ago that the club would cease operations if a buyer could not be found.
“The team will be suspended for the 2017-18 season, but we are working today with an ownership group that will secure hockey for the 2018-19 season,” said Southern Professional Hockey League Commissioner Jim Combs.
Combs did not identify the ownership group but said talks were ongoing.
“We have a gentleman who didn’t have time to complete the due diligence and launch it the way he wants to launch it,” Combs said.
The league hopes to have an announcement in the next 45 days, Combs said.
“That could change,” Combs said when asked if it was a done deal. “This group wants to keep it in Columbus.”
The Cottonmouths began playing here in 1996, shortly after the Civic Center opened.
Cottonmouths Coach and General Manager Jerome Bechard said he believes the team will play again after a year off.
“The franchise is still there,” he said. “The league and ourselves are still working to get an ownership group in here. Obviously, not to play ’17-’18, but, hopefully, to come back in ’18-’19.”
Without ownership in place, the league needed to make this decision so scheduling and planning for next season can begin, Combs said.
Bechard, who has been with the franchise since its inception in 1996, admits it has been a difficult day.
“It is just kind of setting in right now,” Bechard said. “I am probably the most positive-thinking person there is, and up until this morning, I still had hopes that a rabbit gets pulled out of the hat or a prayer gets answered and somebody would come in, and we would be ready to play this year.”
It didn’t happen.
“Unfortunately, the cup is empty,” Bechard said. “The positive part of me is saying that even though it’s empty right now, somebody is going to come in here and give me a drink of water.”
In early March, Amos made clear her intentions to sell the team or cease operations if a buyer could not be found.
“I have loved it, and this started with wanting to do something for the community,” Amos said then. “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. For now, Amos and her husband, Shelby, retain the Southern Professional Hockey League franchise while it is inactive.
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.
“Through all of the people who have come through this office, I am kind of the last one standing,” Bechard said. “... I have truly been blessed to have been able to play in Columbus. It started with Martha and Charlie, with Wanda having the team for the last 17 years, they have done so much for so many people on so many different levels. For 21 years, we have made memories.”