COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) – The sport of hockey took a big hit in Columbus the past few months. The Cottonmouths were snakebit when it came to drawing enough fans to keep the team financially viable.
The Columbus Burn never even got a chance to ignite.
So now what? Where does hockey stand in Columbus?
The folks closest to the sport say it's on the rebound, thanks to grassroots efforts to keep things going.
There's still a Cottonmouth painted on the dasher boards at the Columbus Ice Rink. But it's not for the pros, it's for the kids.
"We use that Cottonmouths logo on our jerseys and we use it as our primary logo, Columbus Hockey, and I take a lot of pride in that," said Orrin Hergott.
Orrin Hergott knows a lot about Cottonmouths pride after spending 9 seasons with the Snakes, 2 SPHL championships, his number 11 retired by the team. His new task is keeping the sport alive in Columbus as director of the Columbus Hockey Association, the city's youth hockey program.
He says, so far, so good with 70 to 80 youth players in the program as the season approaches.
"Surprisingly enough, our district in the Southeast is the third highest among kids playing hockey in the United States, so it's growing and growing and growing every day and every year, and that's exciting and encouraging to see," said Hergott.
The various traveling youth teams have won plenty of banners the past few seasons, and there's a high school age team playing in a statewide league. There's also an adult league that's been going for quite a while. But one team in particular calls the Columbus Ice Rink home – the Auburn Tigers, playing in the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference with 10 club teams from SEC schools.
The Tigers are coached by former Marcel Richard, who spent four seasons with the Cottonmouths, one of the leaders of the 1998 CHL championship run.
It's a different brand of hockey altogether- full cages, no fighting- but they're all good kids that love the game and come from everywhere and just want to keep playing hockey," said Marcel Richard, head coach.
None of this minimizes what the loss of pro hockey will mean to the sport, and to the fans, but Hergott is still optimistic about the future.
"I don't think it's really set in for a lot of people yet, and I don't think it will until we get closer to the season, but I think hockey will stick here for a long, long time to be honest with you. There's just so many people invested in the sport here you know, and at the end of the day our youth program is still alive and kicking and hockey's alive and well in Columbus, Georgia," said Hergott.
As for the chances of pro hockey returning, the Southern Pro Hockey League is actively looking for an owner to take over a Columbus franchise.
SPHL President Jim Combs says they have a prospective owner, but the process is still a long way from being completed.