IT IS said that the Cajuns who live in Louisiana's Lafayette
Parish so love to sing, drink and dance that they will hold a
festival to celebrate a flat tire. Theirs is a culture of fiery
passions and hearty appetites. The young men like to crank up
the zydeco music, shoot alligators between the eyes and shell
crawfish by the crate.
They also go wild for ice hockey. The Louisiana IceGators of
Lafayette completed their inaugural season in the East Coast
Hockey League last week, earning a berth in the playoffs while
becoming the most popular team in the league. The club's total
attendance of more than 320,000 set a record for the
eight-year-old ECHL, and its average home crowd of 9,699 was
more than double the leaguewide average. The team had 20
sellouts in 35 dates at the 11,042-seat Cajundome. "I've never
seen anything like it," says IceGators center Ron Handy, 33, who
has played for 15 teams in his 14 minor league seasons. "The
place goes nuts."
At first blush Lafayette seems an unlikely place to find a
thriving hockey team. Heat gathers upon the bayou year-round,
and the region has the fourth-smallest population (100,900) of
any of the 21 ECHL markets, which stretch from Lafayette north
to Erie, Pa. Yet in this vibrant community--where French is the
second language, houses have the high-peaked roofs of the
Acadian style and numerous roads and businesses are named
Evangeline after the lovelorn maiden in Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow's epic poem--hockey's play-hard, party-hard attitude
fits right in.
Dave and Tim Berryman understood that when they founded the
franchise. The Ontario-raised Berryman brothers were working at
a consumer-research firm in Charleston, S.C., in 1993, when the
ECHL added a team in that city. The South Carolina Stingrays
drew 311,148 fans, the most to that point for an ECHL team. The
brothers, now IceGators co-vice presidents, took note. "Marcel
Dionne [who became president of the Stingrays in 1994] said that
no minor league team could match that success," says Dave, 47,
who was Canada's second-ranked amateur tennis player when he was
17. "We took that as a challenge. We found investors from
Lafayette, and we knew the area was ready for a fast,
hard-hitting game, especially one where some of the players have
Lafayette was also ready for the jamming, full-scale productions
the Berrymans deliver. Enlivened by laser shows, a charismatic
P.A. announcer and loud rock-and-roll, IceGators games are
exciting a community that eight months ago knew little about the
sport. At first fans cheered a goal only when they saw the
players raise their arms and heard the team's celebratory
anthem, Rock & Roll Part II, start blaring from the
loudspeakers. They would stare in amazement at the Zamboni
machine, calling it a Zamboudin, after the blood sausage
Lafayettians love to munch.
"We're not a big sports town to begin with, and hockey was
something we were barely aware of," says Cindy Elberson, an
accountant at a local tannery. "But IceGator games are different
and exciting. Now we're learning the sport."
Before the current ice age, Lafayette offered little in the way
of spectator sports. The city has a thoroughbred racetrack,
Evangeline Downs, and a Division I college, the University of
Southwestern Louisiana, which has had limited success. In the
past 10 years the Southwestern Louisiana men's basketball team
has never sold out the Cajundome. But the fiercely proud
citizens of Lafayette have taken the IceGators to their hearts.
Players are stopped for autographs wherever they go. Their faces
appear on IceGators trading cards. The March 14 Date-a-Gator
auction, in which people bid for dinner with a player, raised
$23,000. A recent visit to Lafayette High by team mascot
Alphonse the Alligator culminated in 1,800 students standing in
the auditorium doing the IceGator chomp--an arms-extended,
vertical clap that resembles the opening and closing of a
Lafayette has embraced the team so fully that several IceGators
were enlisted to lead the city's Mardi Gras parade, a
liquor-laced event recalled only as "a blur" by captain Bill
Berg and his mates. "Life is one big party down here," says
coach Doug Shedden, an Ontario native who played center in the
NHL from 1981 to '91. "If a player wants to drink 10 beers the
night before a game, why not? He'll sweat it out on the ice."
Shedden's lenience is one reason the players, 16 of whom are
Canadian, have taken to Lafayette. They like the fresh seafood,
the opportunity to go duck hunting in the marshes and, of
course, the adoration and exposure. A regional network of eight
radio stations carries IceGators games, and four of this year's
regular-season contests were televised on pay-per-view. "For a
lot of these guys this is as close to an NHL atmosphere as
they'll get," says Shedden. "It's pretty damn close, too."
Games begin to the thunderous accompaniment of Guns 'n Roses'
Welcome to the Jungle, and the pace never slows. Tickets are
priced between $5 and $15, and fans often attend en famille.
Overalled children race about, chewing bite-sized bits of fried
alligator that are available from vendors who also offer
crawfish pizza. Concessionaires sell Hurricanes--sweet and potent
concoctions of light and dark rum with grenadine--in paper cups.
Giveaways, including lottery tickets and gift certificates to
local businesses, go on all game. "It's Mardi Gras every night,"
says Garrett O'Connor, 33, the manager of a local Po Boys'
restaurant who attends games with his five-year-old son,
Benjamin. "It's good hockey but it's also entertainment. And we
love the physical element." That might explain why cries of
"Yahoo!" and "All right!" fill the Cajundome whenever a fight
In a game played on Ash Wednesday, five bloody brawls broke out.
For each, the crowd leaped to its feet, screaming delightedly.
Little boys pressed their faces against the glass, and a mother
holding her tiny daughter jostled for position with a security
No IceGators player is more beloved than good-natured pugilist
Rob McCaig, who amassed 512 penalty minutes in 58 games this
season, and whose nickname, Ribs, identifies the part of an
opponent's anatomy that he prefers to pummel. McCaig, who grew
up in Alberta, says he and some teammates might stick around
when the season ends. "Shoot, if the boys don't have fun in
Lafayette, I don't know where they'll have fun," says McCaig,
24. "You've got the swamps and the hunting, and the people are
Indications are that IceGators euphoria will continue. The team
is on its way to tripling this year's season-ticket base of
1,600, and the possible addition of an ECHL team in Baton Rouge
next season could spawn a rich rivalry. On sunny days dozens of
youngsters play roller hockey in regional youth leagues and in
the Cajundome parking lot. Since September the arena has been
opening its doors to recreational ice skaters, and the daily
sessions are nearly always full.
Among hockey devotees, one often hears the lighthearted
contention that Canadians carry a passion for the sport in their
genes. Now consider the fact that Lafayette's Cajuns descend
from Acadians who were shipped south from Nova Scotia in the
late 1700s. Could it be that the hockey gene, latent for 200
years, has now expressed itself among the transplanted Acadians?
"I don't know if that's it or not," says McCaig. "But there's no
doubt these people have something in their blood."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER The Gators' frequent brawls are popular with Cajun fans, who cheer equally for fights and goals. [Louisiana Icegators hockey player fighting with opponent; Louisiana Icegators fans holding signs]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER Bow-dacious boosters fill the Cajundome; kids love to "chomp" with Alphonse the Alligator. [Fan wearing "GO ICEGATORS" bow in hair; Alphonse the Alligator talking with boy]