By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
After suffering through the ordeal of Hurricane Rita, the residents of Beaumont, Texas, just wanted to get back to their normal way of life.
And for the area’s hockey fans, a big part of getting back into their routine was the return of the new, and vastly improved, Texas Wildcatters.
The ECHL hockey team was forced to suspend operations last season after Rita’s wrath destroyed buildings and disrupted lives. But the Wildcatters, who hired a new coach and have an entirely new roster of players, have returned as one of the league’s best teams.
Texas occupies first place in the American Conference’s South Division and will host the Stockton Thunder at Ford Arena on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
It’s just another weekend of ice hockey in southeast Texas, and the Wildcatters’ small but loyal fan base will be there.
“We just love having them back,” said season ticket holder Lori Cain, who had to leave her home in nearby Nederland for nine weeks because of wind and water damage.
“We’ve had a rough time around here, but we’re trying to get things back the way they were. And that means relaxing at a hockey game.”
Mayor Guy Goodson said having a winning team is nice, but mostly the return of the Wildcatters and events such as high school football games are signals that the town is moving past the disaster.
“We had a pretty good hiccup with Rita, and there have been some tough times,” Goodson said. “This is a good town with good people. And it’s important that the Wildcatters are back, because in this town, sports are king. A lot of our lives revolve around sports, and those activities have helped us recover.”
Goodson proudly states that several well-known sports figures, including baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and former NFL coach Bum Phillips, hail from Beaumont.
But in a town where football is the most popular sport, as it is all over Texas, the Wildcatters have been trying to get a foothold. And they were preparing to start their third season in Beaumont when Rita, a Category 3 hurricane, hit the Gulf Coast on Sept. 24, 2006.
It was the largest and most damaging hurricane in the city’s history, causing more than $9 billion in insured damages. Goodson signed an order evacuating the city for three weeks.
He said insurance forms and television reports could not accurately tell the story of how the storm affected the citizens.
“It’s almost like time stands still,” Goodson said. “You realize how little control you have over life sometimes. And it affected everyone deeply.”
The team’s arena, which was used to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, which hit the New Orleans area a month earlier, was used as a triage center in the weeks following Hurricane Rita.
Rick Adams, the Wildcatter’s owner and managing partner, said the team had no choice but to cancel the season. The Mississippi Sea Wolves, who are based in Biloxi, Miss., also were forced to suspend operations because of Katrina and are scheduled to return to the ECHL next season.
“It just wasn’t possible to go on last season, and the ECHL was great about it and so good to us,” Adams said. “The storm was devastating for anyone who lived around here or had businesses in the area. Everybody had to pick up the pieces.”
The Texas players were allowed to join other teams, and one of them, defenseman Geno Parrish, played in Stockton last season. When the team decided to come back this season, former Long Beach coach Malcolm Cameron was hired and completely overhauled the roster of a team that had losing records in its first two seasons.
“What the Wildcatters have accomplished is fantastic,” Stockton Thunder president Dan Chapman said. “You have to admire them.”
The Wildcatters are averaging about 2,500 fans per game, close to what they did before the hurricane. But Cameron expects both the team and the fan base to improve.
“We were basically an expansion team, but I could tell early on that we had the making of a good team,” Cameron said. “The die-hards have been sensational to us, and you can feel things returning to normal. The visual damage is minimal in town, and it seems like the attitude has recovered, too. Everything feels likes it’s on the upswing.”
Cain agrees with the coach. The area is recovering, and she’s wearing her jersey and cheering at hockey games again.
“We’re back where we were, only now we’re winning,” Cain said. “That makes it better.”