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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 French names."
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 gator's jaws.
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 gets brewing.