LAFAYETTE, La. — Change, especially in the realm of sports, is inevitable. The Southern Professional Hockey League has seen more than its share of change over the past week. We witnessed the promotion of Kevin Kerr from the Macon Mayhem to the ECHL Greenville Swamp Rabbits, followed immediately by the great news of assistant coach Leo Thomas being promoted to replace Kerr. At the same time, we welcomed the Quad-Cities region to the SPHL.
Unfortunately, changes are for both better and worse.
Early this week, when I first got word about the Mississippi RiverKings suspending operations, the news hit me harder than last year’s demise of the Columbus Cottonmouths. As a Louisiana native, I’m no stranger to the emotional sting which comes with the news of a hockey team folding up shop. I first witnessed the ECHL New Orleans Brass being forced out of their arena by the NBA and being left without a venue to play in. After moving to Lafayette, I enjoyed several seasons of the SPHL Louisiana IceGators before renovations to the Cajundome left the team no option but to suspend operations, never to return to the Frozen Swamp.
Losing the RiverKings, from the perspective of an IceGators fan, is like losing your closest cousin. Initially a Central Hockey League team based in Memphis, the Kings remained in operation for 26 consecutive seasons.
You see, the RiverKings and IceGators are two franchises with similar hockey DNA. A year after leaving Lafayette, legendary coach Doug Shedden arrived in Memphis, winning two CHL championships with names familiar to any fan of Louisiana hockey – especially Don Parsons. During the same period, Shedden brought a second-year defenseman to Memphis who would become the heart, soul, and eventual coach of the franchise – Derek Landmesser.
Landmesser would spend 17 of his next 18 years in the Memphis area, with his final five years playing with ECHL Hall-of-Famer Louis Dumont and three years under head coach Kevin Kaminski. Dumont and Kaminski would both head to Lafayette to serve as the SPHL IceGators general manager and head coach, respectively, sparking a family rivalry which would remain until the IceGators’ eventual demise.
As IceGators’ fans, we celebrated our team’s 2013 playoff series win against the RiverKings, booed Darryl Stoddard mercilessly, and licked our wounds during those rare times our cousins to the north would get the better of our boys. We welcomed the fans from Southaven into our building and dined with them during our pregame tailgates, and the RiverKings faithful were just as accommodating when we took the six-hour drive up I-55 for a game at the Landers Center.
In the end, at least from an IceGators perspective, it was only fitting the final game in the franchise’s history was against the RiverKings during the 2016 playoffs. After the run of professional hockey in Louisiana ended, several IceGators fans would become RiverKings supporters, frequently traveling to Southaven to catch RiverKings games and catching up with old rivals-turned-friends and former players who once defended the Cajundome crease.
Still, two years removed since the Cajundome’s ice melted away, my thoughts go out to Robin Hurdle, who originally saved the RiverKings from an early demise in 2002 and worked tirelessly to keep hockey in the Mid-South region. I think about Derek Landmesser and his two decades of dedication to this franchise as both a player and a coach. I think about Bradley Field, T.J. Chillot, and the other staff members – present and past – who I have gotten to know and worked closely with.
My heart goes out to the RiverKings fans throughout the Memphis area who, like so many other fans, are now dealing with the heartbreak of losing their team. I feel for the schoolchildren of the Southaven area who will no longer have field trips to Landers Center to scream for their hockey team, the children in hospitals who would light up when their favorite players came to visit, and the countless people touched by the generosity of a franchise who gave so much to their community.
Although there will not be hockey at the Landers Center when October arrives, the soul of the RiverKings will continue to thrive. Fans wearing the RiverKings black-and-gold & green-and gold will undoubtedly show up for SPHL games – perhaps in Huntsville, Birmingham, and Evansville. Former players will wind up with other teams around the SPHL and ECHL. Perhaps, like many Columbus players winding up in Birmingham, we’ll see some RiverKings take the ice at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline for the new team in the Quad-Cities. We already know former captain Devin Mantha will be molding a few future SPHL players as assistant coach of the NAHL’s Brookings Blizzard.
Sadly, there will not be hockey played in the Mid-South region next season, yet we remain hopeful the Landers Center floor will be frozen over again. However, we take solace from our shared grief that the influence of the Mississippi RiverKings will live on.
Goodnight, sweet Kings, but never goodbye.