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 also serves as the River Dragons’ Vice President of Corporation Partnerships. Pestuka is a 6’1 192-pound forward from Prostejov, Czechoslovakia who also can play defense at a high level. He has four seasons of FPHL experience. Gustin is a 6’0 180-pound defenseman from Phoenix, AZ who 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 will be watching this experiment very closely.