Hockey was a hard sell in the Big Easy
The ECHL's New Orleans Brass existed from 1997-2002 and made the playoffs each season. (Photo courtesy of the ECHL)
Hockey was a hard sell in the Big Easy
By Ryan Whirty
When the ECHL’s New Orleans Brass were launched in 1997, it was a big deal, not only in a city where ice – other than in sweet tea – is rare, but also in the African-American community, where interest in the sport is, unfortunately, also rare. As a franchise majority-owned by an African-American investment group – one that included New Orleans ex-mayor Ray Nagin – the Brass were billed as a landmark development in black business circles, garnering an article in the March 1998 issue of Black Enterprise.
Other partners in the ownership group included attorney Roy Rodney and political insider and entrepreneur Stan ‘Pampy’ Barre. Behind the scenes, the Brass were additionally funded by silent partner John Georges, a self-made multi-millionaire of Greek-American ancestry.
The Brass were a bold business venture as well since the Crescent City had little knowledge of hockey. In fact, when New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Peter Barrouquere was given the Brass beat, he was a novice to hockey. “I had seen four hockey games,” Barrouquere said. “I didn’t really know about it.”
But Barrouquere learned quickly, as did a sizeable chunk of the New Orleans sports fans. The team built a base of hardcore devotees who came in thousands to watch games at the Municipal Auditorium. The squad also found a fair amount of success on the ice, making the ECHL playoffs each of its five seasons, advancing to the third round in 1999 with a physical style of play that appealed to patrons who love New Orleans Saints football.
“We’re sports fans down here,” Georges said. “We love football, we love basketball and baseball and that particular venture put a quality product on the ice.”
A bond developed between the Brass and its fans.
“People were skeptical at first,” said Brass D-man Steve Cheredaryk. “But once they met the players, they were amazed with how down to earth and well-spoken they are. That’s what endeared the Brass to the people of the South.”
The team moved to the New Orleans Arena in 1999, but when the NBA’s Hornets arrived in 2002, the Brass became second fiddle. The costs of transforming the building’s floor from hardwood to ice and back proved too steep and the Brass failed to negotiate a long-term lease at the Auditorium, leaving the franchise without a place to play. Despite financial and on-ice success, the team had to fold.
Now, 10 years later, three of its former investors have run into trouble with federal authorities. In July 2008, Barre was sentenced to five years in prison for skimming more than $1 million from a city energy contract. A month later, Rodney got four months in the clink for failing to file tax returns, a charge that surfaced during investigations of the administration of then-mayor Marc Morial.
Nagin, meantime, who gained global recognition for his reaction to the Hurricane Katrina crisis, is now being investigated by a grand jury probing alleged gratuities he received from city vendors.
At this point, the various federal investigations haven’t turned up any wrongdoing involving the Brass, said first assistant U.S. attorney Jan Mann, a fact the defendants’ lawyers also stress.
Moreover, former Brass player Matthew Dean Moore, who became a New Orleans police officer after the demise of the Brass, was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the cover-up of a fatal police beating of a local man.
But such troubles haven’t broken the connection between the former team and its fans. A Brass fan club lives on and several city club teams have sprouted up.
The love is mutual, with several former players making New Orleans their home, including Cheredaryk.
“I’ve been fortunate,” said Cheredaryk, who earned a degree from the University of New Orleans. “The city has been terrific for me.”
Those involved with the Brass look back on the franchise’s five seasons of existence with fondness.
“Those were good times,” Georges said. Ten years after the demise of the Brass, the Crescent City’s hockey community still pines for the sport, with many fans hoping another pro team will emerge in New Orleans.
A lot has to fall into place for that to happen – most importantly, locating a place for the team to play – a task made harder by the lingering affects of Hurricane Katrina. The Hornets’ financial footing is now much firmer with a new owner, meaning a new hockey team would have to compete for fans in the winter months.
Spokesmen for the American League and ECHL say their leagues have no current plans or interest in settling a team in The Big Easy. Still, a hardcore group of hockey fanatics would love to see it happen. “There’s been some movement to get pro hockey back,” Barrouquere said. “Evidently, there’s quite a demand for it.”