Friday, May 20, 2016
I moved to Louisiana in 2010. Prior to that, I had never been to a hockey game and shrugged off TV games as boring. I was a baseball fan first, and football fan second.
To me, hockey was a boring sport like soccer that I just could not find to be exciting in any way. Hockey in the South is a very niche market. It is something that you don't grow up with in a culture that worships football, and even baseball comes a distant second to football-obsessed Dixie.
The popular kids in school often were members of the football team. Hockey was barely spoken of, and understandably so. Ice is not easy to find, especially in the Deep South where you may encounter an occasional ice storm, but never a consistent playing surface. Saturdays in the fall were college football on TV, and Sundays would have the Cowboys or Washington on every screen in every home or bar you might visit. "Hockey? That's a Yankee sport!" people would mutter between sips of Budweiser.
Basketball was usually looked down on as a game for black people, because there were hardly any African-Americans where I grew up in staunchly white, Protestant Virginia.
Shortly after moving to Louisiana, I began dating again after a couple of failed relationships. On a first date with someone I had only talked to online, we decided to go to a hockey game at the Cajun Dome - because there was really nothing else going on that January night. I remember the date well, it was January 15th, 2011 and the IceGators were playing the Augusta RiverHawks if I recall correctly. The game was electric. Suddenly, hockey didn't seem so boring after all. Despite not knowing much about the rules of the game, we both fell in love with hockey that night.
5 years later, Shannon and I are still together - and both of us still love the sound of the horn when a goal is scored. Over the last 3 seasons, I did not miss a single home game. Sometimes I would arrive late from work, but never actually missed the whole contest in a streak that lasted close to 100 games.
While Shannon wasn't always able to go, she would be sure to urge me to go because the loudest section in the Cajun Dome needed my antics which included heckling the opposing team mercilessly. During that time, we spent thousands of dollars on concessions, raffles, merchandise and even paid $300 for the uniform of the only Orthodox Jew playing in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL).
We loved and lost different players due to trades, injuries and retirement. Through it all, we were devoted fans of an anomaly, a professional hockey franchise in Louisiana of all places. In Louisiana, hockey isn't the most popular sport by any stretch of the imagination even though hockey once packed the approximately 10,000 seat Cajun Dome back in the 1990s.
Back then, hockey teams popped up all over the place, only to fold a few years later. Louisiana loves the Saints and LSU, and not much else when it comes to sports. When the IceGators resurfaced for the 2009-2010 season, their games were held in Blackham Coliseum, a ancient venue used primarily for rodeos and livestock shows. One of their first goalies went on to play for a number of other professional minor league teams before winning the Stanley Cup with the Chicago BlackHawks last year. His name is Scott Darling.
In 2010-2011, the IceGators started playing in the Cajun Dome. From the very beginning, they had to schedule their games around the venue's music and sports events which made for long absences during college basketball season. Sometimes you would have to go as long as 6 weeks without a hockey game as the hardwood floor for basketball replaced hockey's ice sheet. Yet, the team's management made it work despite brutal road trips that put tens of thousands of miles on a bus which liked to break down on the trips to Knoxville or Peoria.
Through good seasons and bad, a couple thousand people would turn out for IceGators hockey. Except in the worst weather, Saturdays would often find dozens of devoted fans gathered in the parking lot hours before the game to party. We would drink, grill and have a good old time hanging out. Sometimes fans of opposing teams would wander in and they would be greeted with some smack talk before being handed a plate of food and a beer. This was a gathering of people that transcended racial, political and cultural boundaries - and I loved every damn drunken moment of it.
When I walked out of the last home game when the IceGators lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Mississippi River Kings, I breathed in that cool, humid air that every hockey fan knows about. Somehow, I had the feeling that I would never see that again in the Cajun Dome.
The news came last Monday. Standing in a funeral home where I was saying goodbye to a friend, the news came that the IceGators were suspending operations for the 2016-2017 season due to renovations at the arena. Upon speaking with other people in the know, it turns out that IceGator hockey was likely done for good due to the local economy and mediocre attendance.
Our 9 year old kid doesn't know yet the IceGators aren't coming back next season. We don't have the heart to tell him just yet that he won't be able to pose for pictures with Gaston, the alligator mascot this fall. IceGator hockey was probably the only place in the world where you could catch a shrimp poboy shot out of a t-shirt gun, watch a game and a few fights, and party with some of the craziest fans you'll ever meet.
Whether or not the IceGators return for the 2017-2018 season, I will always be grateful to the owners, the staff, the players and the fans who helped me to experience a game I am now madly in love with.
Thank you for the pucks, the fights, and the thrills. Thank you for giving me something to look forward to on cold winter nights. Thank you for putting smiles on the faces of thousands of fans. And most importantly, thank you for the memories we will cherish for the rest of our lives.
P.S, Due to the overwhelming response to this article, I am hoping that the hockey gods will step in and save our team. Maybe a rain dance in my yard will do the trick.