Columbus River Dragons
When the Columbus Cottonmouths announced in May 2017 they would be suspending operations after 21 seasons in the Central Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League and the Southern Professional Hockey League, it ended the longest running hockey franchise in Georgia history. Almost two years passed before it was announced that the Federal Prospects Hockey League (FPHL) had awarded an expansion team to Columbus. Ignite Pro Hockey, LLC, represented by managing member Jeffery Croop of Glen Allen, Virginia, announced the team would be known as the Columbus River Dragons.
Columbus Civic Center Director Jon Dorman had been seeking a tenant for hockey ever since the Cottonmouths ceased operations. The arena lease deal was reportedly for five years and similar to the previous agreement with the Cottonmouths.
Previously known as the Federal Hockey League and the Federal Professional Hockey League, the Federal Prospects Hockey League was set to field ten teams in two divisions for the 2019-20 season: the Eastern Division consisting of the Danbury Hat Tricks of Danbury, Connecticut; the Elmira Enforcers of Elmira, New York; the Mentor Ice Breakers of Mentor, Ohio; the Watertown Wolves of Dewitt, New York and the Delaware Thunder of Harrington, Delaware. The Western Division will be made up of the Port Huron Prowlers of Port Huron, Michigan; the Carolina Thunderbirds of Winston-Salem, North Carolina; the Battle Creek Rumble Bees of Battle Creek, Michigan; the Danville Dashers of Danville, Illinois and the Columbus River Dragons.
With the addition of Columbus, the FPHL has indicated its interest in future expansion in the South and Southeast. The FPHL has been responsible for promoting and advancing over 500 players to the various professional leagues including the AHL, ECHL, SPHL, and European leagues.
On May 21, 2019, the organization introduced their new team colors, logo, and front office staff to an enthusiastic gathering that included fans and members of the media at the Columbus Civic Center. Michigan native Scott Brand was named the team’s President and General Manager. Brand’s most recent hockey experience included two seasons with the FPHL Carolina Thunderbirds, winning the FPHL Executive of the Year award during the 2017-18 season and assembling the team for the 2018-19 season that brought the FPHL championship to Winston-Salem. Long-time player and coach Jerome Bechard was introduced as the Vice President of Community Relations. Bechard spent 21 of his 25 years in professional hockey in Columbus and still calls Columbus home. Most recently, Bechard has enjoyed success in the Columbus real estate market.
The River Dragons also announced that the team had entered into a working agreement with the Canadian Tier II junior hockey Bradford Bulls of the Greater Metro Hockey League (GMHL). The Bulls have a prior history for developing and moving players on to the college and professional level.
Early player signings included Brant Sherwood, a 6’0 170-pound forward from Rochester, NY with prior playing experience in the FPHL, SPHL and ECHL and goaltender Jared Rutledge. The Chicago, IL native began his professional career with the Mississippi RiverKings of the SPHL in 2017-18 before joining the Watertown Wolves in the FPHL for the 2018-19 campaign.
At the beginning of July, the River Dragons announced that they had completed the franchise’s first ever trade, sending Jiri Pargac, Dustin Henning, and Ondrej Misovic to the Carolina Thunderbirds in exchange for Jay Croop, Jiri Pestuka, and Seth Gustin. Croop was also named as the River Dragons’ Vice President of Corporation Partnerships. Pestuka, a 6’1 192-pound forward from Prostejov, Czechoslovakia, can also play defense. He came with four seasons of FPHL experience. Gustin, a 6’0 180-pound defenseman from Phoenix, AZ had 19 points for the Thunderbirds, finishing the season with an impressive plus/minus rating of +22.
On August 1, 2019, the River Dragons announced that the team would play two neutral site games during the 2019-20 season in Athens, Georgia at the Akins Ford Arena at The Classic Center. The Akins Ford Arena is home to the University of Georgia club hockey team and seats 2,000 for ice hockey. With Athens poised to build a 6,000 seat arena as part of their 2020 SPLOST proposal, the FPHL was undoubtedly interested in this experiment, but after a disappointing turnout for the first game, the second game was shifted back to Columbus.
The River Dragons unveiled their initial roster for the 2019-20 season on October 25. The roster was composed of 20 players from seven states, five provinces and four countries. Initially the team went with two Associate Coaches, Gary Gill and Jerome Bechard, but eventually Bechard became Head Coach and former Cottonmouth favorite Orrin Hergott was named Assistant Coach. Gill took another position with the team's front office. Columbus defeated the Delaware Thunder 5-2 on the road in their inaugural game. The team ended 2019 under .500 but went 7-3 in January.
On February 21, the River Dragons extended their winning streak to six games with a 4-3 overtime win over the Eastern Division leading Danbury Hat Tricks and with the victory clinched a playoff spot.
On Saturday, March 7, the team hosted a Throwback Night which featured an afternoon matinee game between the Cottonmouths Legends and a team of soldiers from nearby Fort Benning. The River Dragons also wore specialty Cottonmouth-inspired throwback jerseys in their game with the Carolina Thunderbirds. One night later against the same Thunderbirds in Winston-Salem, the two teams combined for 173 minutes in penalties in a game that saw both coaches ejected as Carolina trounced Columbus 9-3.
The River Dragons had a record of 18-21-6-1 for 67 points when the FPHL announced on March 12 it was suspending play as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Four days later, the league’s Board of Governors voted to cancel the remainder 2019-20 season.
Team President and General Manager Scott Brand released a statement following the league’s announcement. "We are obviously extremely disappointed in how this all ended, but we are ecstatic with the fan support and corporate partnerships we were able to achieve through the shortened season. Columbus has been and always will be a tremendous sports town especially when it comes to ice hockey. Our team was well on its way to what we believe to be a strong playoff run and we were approaching our goal of 100,000 fans in the Civic Center in year one.”
Columbus averaged 3,046 fans per game, just shy of Elmira's league-leading 3,077.
On November 19, 2020, the Federal Prospects Hockey League announced that a new tentative start date for the league would be January 15, 2021. The deadline for fans to join the team’s Inside Edge Club, freeze season ticket pricing for the 21-22 season and be eligible for the members-only pre-sale for tickets in the 20-21 season was changed to December 16th. But by the end of December, the FPHL changed its start date to February 3rd, estimating a slate of regular season games totaling in the low 40s per team. The league did not set any league restrictions on fan attendance, delegating this responsibility to each team as individual arena policies varied due to state and county regulations.
In mid-January, the league informed their member teams that due to New York state restrictions regarding travel and quarantine, the Elmira Enforcers and Watertown Wolves would begin their season on February 3rd while all other teams will start at a later date to be determined. The New York teams could only play each other or face a lengthy quarantine that would disrupt the season. Many FPHL facilities around the league were not yet cleared for play thus leading to the delay in starting the season for all non-New York teams.
On February 12, 2021, The City of Columbus, the Columbus Civic Center and the Columbus River Dragons announced a plan to create a safe return to play for the 2021 FPHL season. The River Dragons were set to open their season on the road in Elmira on February 23rd. The team's home opener was scheduled for March 4th against the Port Huron Prowlers.
The River Dragons finished the COVID shortened season with the best winning percentage among the four teams in the league that elected to play. They faced the Elmira Enforcers in the best of five league championship series. Columbus won the first game in Elmira by a 4-2 score. Game two was the longest in FPHL history. The game ended in a 3-3 tie, with the teams going scoreless during the third and first overtime periods. Nate O'Brien's point shot got past Enforcers goaltender Dillon Kelley 4:04 into double overtime to give Columbus a 2-0 lead in the Ignite Cup Finals.
With three chances to win it all in front of their home crowd, the Dragons made it a sweep with a dominating 8-1 win to capture their first Ignite Cup on April 30.
The River Dragons kicked off their third season on November 5 after the COVID-shortened season. Due to the late start, the team didn’t finalize their roster as early, and the team hovered around the .500 mark until mid-December, when the team really began to gel. Multiple win streaks of four, five and six games were the norm, as the team finished with a 32-17-3-2 record for 101 points. The Dragons also gave up the fewest number of goals in the league. Bailey MacBurnie was named the FPHL's Goaltender of the Year and a First Team All-Star Goalie. Forwards Austin Daae and Josh Pietrantonio were named to the FPHL's All-Star Second Team and rookie defenseman Adam Vannelli earned one of the two spots on the FPHL’s Young Stars Squad leading all Columbus defensemen with 28 points (8 goals, 20 assists). Vannelli’s +41 rating placed him in the top ten league wide.
Due to the goofy way the FPHL schedule works, not all teams play the same number of games, so the final standings are determined by Win%, which allowed Columbus to finish second and receive a bye in the first round. The Dragons faced Danbury in the second round and swept the best of three series.
The River Dragons faced the Watertown Wolves in the Commissioner's Cup final series. Columbus hosted game one on Friday, April 29 and defeated the Wolves by a score of 3-2. The Dragons then made the 1100-mile bus trip to Watertown NY, near the Canadian border. Watertown rebounded with a 4-1 victory on Sunday, setting up a dramatic game three the following night.
The teams entered the third period of game three tied at two apiece. After a scoreless third period and first overtime frame, the teams set a new record for the FPHL’s longest game before Watertown's Lane King slipped a rebound past Bailey MacBurnie at 10:08 to give the Wolves their third Commissioner's Cup championship.
Columbus finished second to Binghamton in regular season attendance with an average of 2,583 per game. For the two playoff games, the Dragons averaged 3,265 per game, the most in league history, proving once again that Columbus is a great hockey town.
During the 2022-23 campaign, Columbus went 40-11-5 for third place overall in the eight team league. Six players had over forty total points and nearly everyone was in the black in the plus-minus ranking. The River Dragons swept Motor City in the quarter finals and faced Carolina in the semis. After winning a 6-1 blowout at home, the Dragons lost two one-goal games in Winston-Salem, game two in double-overtime.
Several individuals received awards during the course of the season. Breandan Colgan shared the Goaltender of the Year Award along with the Danbury’s Brian Wilson. Colgan established a new league record for shutouts in a season with seven, as well as the record for most consecutive shutouts with four and longest scoreless streak at 259:41 lasting from December 22 at Port Huron through January 13 at Carolina. Colgan led the league in goals against average (2.25) and save percentage (.922). Forward Jacob Kelly and defenseman Josh Labelle earned Second Team All-Star honors. Team COO Jeff Croop was named the FPHL Executive of the Year and Tom Callahan was awarded the FPHL’s Broadcaster of the Year honor.
Looking forward, hockey continues to be alive and well in the Fountain City. The team announced in mid-April an agreement for a five-year extension at the Columbus Civic Center and also unveiled their Fifth Anniversary logo and alternate jersey for 2023-24. The team trailed only Binghamton with an average attendance of 3,531 for 28 home games and 3,232 for the two home playoff games.