Grassroots marketing brings IceGators to Lake Area

It’s not often you see a first-place team pounding pavement in search of regional support.

Then again, it’s not often you see professional hockey around these parts anymore.

Since the franchise returned in 2009, the Louisiana IceGators — based in Lafayette — have never quite hit the highs of the old franchise. Perhaps that’s why the franchise was in Lake Charles Wednesday, culminating with a promotional event at Darrell’s that evening.

As players, dancers and members of the team’s front office relaxed over cold drinks and food, fans had the opportunity to meet and greet at no cost.

For former IceGators player and current General Manager Louis Dumont, these type of events are the lifeblood for the organization he runs.

“For the most part it’s just coming out and doing stuff like this to see people and let them know that if they’ve got nothing to do on a Saturday night, come out to an IceGators game,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of fans that drive from south of Lafayette for a game. By the time they get home it’s an hour drive.

“A drive from Lake Charles to Lafayette is a pretty easy drive when you consider it all. But for the most part, we try to get out and do a couple small bits of advertising. We do things like this and bring the players out.”

Small-time professional hockey seemed like an emerging force in the state in the mid-’90s. It ended up being a fad of the time. A boom for professional minor league hockey in Louisiana — Lake Charles, Shreveport, Alexandria, Monroe, Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans all picked up teams — brought differing levels of excitement in each city.

The teams’ foldings seemed to correlate with the sport’s popularity in each market. The Lake Charles Ice Pirates had the shortest-lived franchise, operating from 1997 until 2001 in the Western Professional Hockey League. Baton Rouge’s franchise, the Kingfish, played from 1996 until 2003 and the Louisiana IceGators from 1996 until 2005. Both played in the East Coast Hockey League.

It was the IceGators who captured the hearts of Lafayette more than the others. The franchise led the ECHL in attendance in its first four years of existance, twice topping 11,000 per game in the Cajundome, and still owns eight of the top-10 attendance records for playoff hockey in the ECHL.

It’s been promotional work, like the Darrell’s meet-and-greet, that has helped revive the IceGators. Since their rebirth, they’ve doubled attendance. In its return season, the IceGators averaged about 1,000 fans a night.

While a far cry from the overnight sensation of the first franchise, it represents progress. Much of the first franchise’s initial success was based upon the physical aspects of hockey as opposed to the skill.

“I think it was a novelty in the beginning,” Dumont said. “People wanted to see what it was about and they enjoyed the fights and seeing what it was about. The IceGators brought a good team and product in the beginning and that really helped a lot. Averaging 11,000 fans a game was incredible.

“But, I think now there are a lot of people who know hockey very well. They know a good team versus a bad team.”

One thing the organization has stressed has been affordable family entertainment. That environment is something Dumont doesn’t rule out bringing to Lake Charles at some point.

“We did an exhibition in Shreveport last year to try and drum it back up over there,” he said. “We’d have to look at the cost for a game or an exhibition in Lake Charles. I think that’s something we could possibly look at.

“What it is is good, fun family entertainment. The players are very engaging. It’s affordable. You can get in, watch some good hockey and it’s a good night out with the family.”

For Doug Williamson, a Sulphur resident, hockey has always been a family affair. He was an Ice Pirates season-ticket holder and has memories of growing up watching the Dixie Flyers as a kid in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn. That love moved with him to the Lake Area and blossomed into his son playing hockey for a few years about the time the Ice Pirates were in existence.

“I enjoyed the game,” Williamson said. “It was always good fun and was affordable for you to bring your kids. You didn’t have to worry. There was fighting, but you didn’t have to worry about people being drunk and vulgar. It was always fun entertainment.

“(Hockey) was something (my son) and I could do together. Even though I couldn’t skate at the time, it was something we could share. My daughter really loved hockey, too. So when he left for college she became my hockey buddy. So we drive together to the games.”

Now the IceGators compete in the Southern Professional Hockey League and are in second place with 37 points through 30 games.

“There’s still some fighting in the game,” Dumont said. “It’s very skilled and fast. I don’t think you’d notice much difference in the speed. For the most part, it’ll look a lot the same as back in the day. There’s still some rough, tough hockey and good action for the fans to see.”

With his love for the game showing, Williamson is hopeful that hockey can return to Southwest Louisiana.

“When they lost the team here they still had about 2,000 per game,” he said “That’s about the number the IceGators are doing. It wasn’t that there was no fan support. I think it was a (financial issue). They didn’t have anything to run the club on. I think if they can have indoor football here then there’s certainly a market for ice hockey.”