When the Gulf Coast was hockey crazy
Speed, physicality and regional rivalries grabbed fans interested
The Stanley Cup Finals are in full swing with the Pittsburgh Penguins currently dominating the San Jose Sharks winning the first two games of the best of seven series. The NHL has some of the best playoff traditions in sports from every championship winning player getting his name etched on the championship trophy, earning eternal glory, to the teams lining up, shaking hands as gentlemen, and win or loss, each player congratulating one another on their hard fought series.
The Penguins and Sharks have played at a very high pace, streaking up and down the ice. The speed, physicality and athleticism on display brought back happy thoughts of when hockey fever took over the Gulf South. Beginning in the mid-1990s, teams sprang up faster than a slap shot through the five hole. Local interest centered on the New Orleans Brass, who played the Baton Rouge Kingfish, Louisiana IceGators (Lafayette), Mississippi Sea Wolves (Biloxi), Mobile (Ala.) Mysticks, Birmingham (Ala.) Bulls, Pensacola (Fla.) Ice Pilots, Jackson (Miss.) Bandits, and (Little Rock) Arkansas RiverBlades.
The Brass, once a Sharks affiliate, who played at the Municipal Auditorium and New Orleans Arena from 1997 to 2002. Ray Nagin, before he became mayor of the city, owned the team. The team’s games were broadcast locally on radio on WSMB. Steve Carroll, the first radio voice of the Brass, now calls games for the Anaheim Ducks.
The team made the playoffs every year, advancing to the conference semifinals in the 1998–99 season and the quarterfinals in 2000–01.
The interest in hockey was fueled by the play of hockey living legend Wayne Gretzky, nicknamed “The Great One.” Gretzky played 20 seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL) from 1979 to 1999, and was called “the greatest hockey player ever” during and after his career by many sportswriters, players, and the NHL.
The Brass folded as a result of the NBA’s Hornets (now Pelicans) moving to the Crescent City. Hornet’s ownership demanded the hockey team pay to convert the arena to and from the basketball court and hockey rink as a condition of staying in the arena. The Brass refused and looked to return to the Municipal Auditorium, but the arena removed its ice plant when it replaced its floor in a renovation. The team didn’t have a place to play and ceased operation.
The Kingfish arrived in Baton Rouge in 1996. They affiliated with the St. Louis Blues and played their home games at the Baton Rouge River Center, but moved to Victoria, British Columbia in 2003.
Hockey and the ECHL suffered major blows in the mid 2000s that mad a major chilling effect on the sport’s popularity. A pay disagreement resulted in a lockout and the cancellation of the NHL’s entire 2004–05 season. It was the first time the Stanley Cup was not awarded since 1919, and the first time a major professional sports league in North America canceled a complete season because of a labor dispute. The lockout soured many on the sport, and the minor leagues suffered as a result. Then in August 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida.
The IceGators were one of the most successful franchises in the history of the ECHL, both in wins and ticket sales. The affiliate of the NHL Minnesota Wild and the AHL Houston Aeros played at the Cajundome from 1995-96 through 2004-05 and had an average attendance of 11,433 in the 1996-97 season.
The SeaWolves played in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum. They reached the playoffs in five of their first seven years, and celebrated a league championship in 1999. The SeaWolves didn’t play the 2005-06 or 2006-07 seasons. They returned for play in 2007-08 and 2008-09, but interest waned and they couldn’t make a go.
The NBA survived the retirement of Michael Jordan, who many consider to be the best basketball player of all time, and its own labor disputes through great marketing of its players and their personalities – think Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry. Hockey has not had the same success. I don’t know if the sport will ever reach the popularity in the South like it did just before the turn of the 21st Century. My guess is that the sport will need a “Greater One” to not only mesmerize hockey fans, but also once again draw in the interest of casual sports fans. Hockey has a great cult following, but in order to see the sport return to the popularity it just recently had, the NHL needs to bump up its appeal by increasing access to the teams, players, traditions and drama involved in such a cool sport.