By Michael Krieg
©The Lafayette Daily Advertiser
LAFAYETTE, La. – Unless a minor miracle takes place within the next week, the end of an era will come to a close tonight in the Cajundome.
The Louisiana IceGators host rival Texas at 7:05 p.m. Saturday in the regular season finale in the “Frozen Swamp” in what is likely to be the team’s last game in Lafayette.
Due to Louisiana’s financial struggles, tonight will mark the end of one of the most storied franchises on and off the ice in ECHL history. It’s a gloomy ending to the once kings of the ECHL.
Rod Pasma was the first player to sign with Louisiana before the inaugural 1995-96 season. He played one year with the IceGators before pursuing a managerial career in hockey. Pasma now serves as the Vice President of hockey operations in the ECHL front office.
“It’s going to be very sad to see Louisiana go,” Pasma said. “I can put on many hats to say how sad it’s going to be. It’s very disappointing because they once were one of the premier franchises at the minor league level. I want to say their season ticket base at one time was higher than some national league (NHL) clubs.
“From a personal standpoint, I haven’t been there for a long time but some guys have made it (Lafayette) their home. It hits a little closer to home with them. Earlier this year I went for a game and when I left the rink I said to my wife, ‘It’s sad to think this could be the last time we’re at the Cajundome.’
“The Cajundome is like no other arena I’ve seen. I would get chills skating on the ice every time just because of the Cajundome alone.”
Chris Valicevic, the greatest player to don an IceGator sweater, is one of the players that made Lafayette his home. Valicevic married a Louisiana native and his wife and kids reside here.
The former ECHL MVP and four-time defenseman of the year had opportunities to advance, but didn’t want to leave Lafayette. His brother, Rob, also played with the IceGators and enjoyed a few stints in the NHL.
Valicevic recalled all the hoopla over the IceGators. There were Sports Illustrated articles, Time Magazine articles, appearances on Good Morning America and even a few highlights on ESPN’s Sportscenter.
“(Hockey) brought a lot of attention to Lafayette and the area for the longest time,” he said. “After we settled in a little bit the ongoing joke was Lafayette was the best kept secret in the country. Us players didn’t know exactly what it would be like, but once we got here we never wanted to leave and I haven’t.”
The glory years
When the IceGators arrived on the scene in 1995-96 no one knew what to expect, especially the players. The team began the first season on a 10-game road trip before opening the home schedule Nov. 5 against Mobile. That night was one of Valicevic’s favorite memories.
“We had spent a long time on the road, really not spending anytime at home and coming back we weren’t sure what to expect,” Valicevic said. “There was a buzz around town, but nobody knew how great it was until opening night. It was an eye opener for everybody.”
The IceGators won the game 3-1, before a sellout crowd of 11,026.
“To my knowledge that was a sellout and the only time I’ve seen a slap shot hit the glass and everybody cheered for that,” Valicevic said.
Louisiana went on to have 20 sellouts during that season, 27 in 96-97, 13 in 97-98, 2 in 98-99 and one in 99-2000. Those sellout numbers don’t reflect the club’s postseason ECHL record of 11,800 (set four times). In fact, the IceGators have nine of the top 10 postseason single game attendance records. “The whole game was new to the fans,” Valicevic said. “From every check, every shot to the first fight. I don’t want to say it was over exaggerated, but it was monumental to everybody. Everybody was on their feet the whole time. It was such a new experience game to game. Everybody got into it early.”
It was a new experience for the players as well. Players in the ECHL weren’t used to playing in front of crowds that were sometimes bigger than NHL venues.
“There were a lot of guys not necessarily in shock, but when we come out for warm ups and there’s already 7,000 to 8,000 people in the building – it got you excited to play hockey,” Valicevic said.
Rough place to play
The Cajundome and its capacity crowds quickly became a menacing place for opponents to play and perhaps the most dreaded venue in the league. The IceGators’ physical, aggressive teams under Doug Shedden were known as the bad boys of the ECHL and players feared playing Louisiana.
Former player and current South Carolina coach Jason Fitzsimmons has his share of stories about the IceGators. He led the Stingrays to the Kelly Cup Championship over Louisiana during the 1997 season, garnering MVP honors.
“Always a tough team to play,” Fitzsimmons said. “I remember the line brawl game in 95-96. I had just scored a goal and they jumped my linemate Rob Concannon. I don’t think they’ve could’ve cared less about the goal. They were a tough team and you knew when you played there, you were in for a long night.”
“There’s no question we were the bad boys of the league,” former coach Doug Shedden said. “We had Rob McCaig with over 500 penalty minutes that year and probably 10 other guys with over 100. The best thing though was after the games those guys would get out in the community and reach out to the fans, because they reached out to us. We were like one big happy family.”
And, that family watched as Fitzsimmons and the Stingrays won the 97 Kelly Cup on Louisiana’s home ice.
“To win the MVP in their building and get such a nice round of applause from their fans when we raised the Kelly Cup – it was just a great response,” Fitzsimmons said. “It was the highlight of my hockey career and I was happy to share it with the Louisiana fans. They were one of the premier organizations in the league. I’ll miss them.”
Not only were the fans tough on the opposing players, but the Cajundome was an experience for the zebras as well.
Bryan Graham worked his fair share of games in the Cajundome and now serves as the ECHL’s Vice President and director of officiating. He, like Fitzsimmons, remembers the rowdy crowds and the IceGators’ bad boy reputation.
“The games were so intense,” he said. “Shedden always had aggressive, physical teams and they were always on edge no matter what the score was. You always had to be prepared to work 60 minutes. It was a tough building to work in because anything could happen at any given moment.”
The last hurrah
Louisiana is used to winning boasting the second-highest percentage (.672) in ECHL history entering this season. However, for the first time in team history the IceGators have failed to make the playoffs this season and because of financial difficulties tonight likely will mark the end of one of the most successful franchises on and off the ice in ECHL history.
Louisiana became the seventh oldest team in the league this year and kicked off its 10th anniversary season with hopes of securing the ever elusive Kelly Cup Championship. Instead, attendance bottomed out at 2,101 fans per game (second to last in the league entering tonight) and the team’s ownership group ran out of funds midway through the season forcing the league to step in.
“I’m stunned,” Shedden said. “I’ve never been in that building with less than 11,800 people in it. Someone told me, ‘Shedds since you’re gone if we put you in the middle of the Cajundome you wouldn’t know what rink you’re in.’ I can’t understand how something could fall off the table that far.”
The league hasn’t had any luck finding investors to keep the team in the Hub City and the IceGators are down to their final days. League commissioner Brian McKenna said earlier this week the league, “is hopeful, but not optimistic” hockey will be in Lafayette next year.
“It’s very sad the ‘Gators may not be back next year with the history and success they’ve had,” Graham said. “I have some of my favorite memories in that building.”
Louisiana established itself early as a premier franchise and despite the end result, the success will never be forgotten.
“Just in a short time of the franchise, Louisiana definitely made its mark with things they did on and off the ice,” Valicevic said. “I think that led to everybody being excited about hockey. The social aspect of the area was the people wanting to get to know you (hockey players) and show us their culture. The way they’ve embraced the players has never happened anywhere else.”