Louisiana fans love them ‘Bugs!

By Dicky Dunn

Century Tel Center Drive sits along the banks of the Red River; stones throw from the Jimmy Davis Bridge and about three miles from the Barksdale Airforce base.

It is an area most associated with cotton fields, fried catfish and sounds of slot machines at the booming riverboat casinos down the road. However, for the passionate sports following in Northwest Louisiana this is hockey country – more correctly, Hockey Parish.

The Century Tel Center is home to the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs of the Central Hockey League. One of the most successful franchises in the 15-team league and the cornerstone of minor professional hockey in Louisiana, the Mudbugs franchise dropped the puck on its ninth season Oct. 21. Already a three-time President’s Cup winning organization, this years goal is for continued success both on and off the ice.

In nine years the team has changed owners, coaches, and every player on the roster at least once. The constant factor in the Mudbugs success story – its fans. The teams average attendance that has increased at least 10 per cent over the past three seasons, a mark unheard of for most minor league sports franchises.

“It is the fans, plain and simple,” said Mudbugs Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Scott Muscutt. “We work to give them an entertaining team on the ice each year and they work in their own way, supporting us like no other organization I have ever seen. They are amazing.”

Muscutt should know. He was a member of the original Mudbugs team in 1997-98 in the then Western Professional Hockey League. Hockey was a new game in a town that was more familiar with frozen daiquiri stands than frozen hockey pucks.

“We were the new game in town, but it was a town that had been burned by sports in the past with failed football, soccer and basketball teams,” said Muscutt. “The players in the early going worked very hard off the ice with community projects and the fans responded by showing up to the games.”

It is a simple formula that has stuck with the club through the new faces who wear the teams black, teal and purple. Community involvement remains at the forefront and is a consideration when Muscutt recruits. He says he is a strong believer in the adage that a quality person off the ice is going to make a quality player on the ice.

The proof was evident this summer when the team stepped up to the plate to help evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. Players and staff joined to host fundraising cook outs, helped collect clothing donations and set-up a children’s play area when the CenturyTel Center was used as an evacuee shelter. It was the team that hosted and the support of fans that made the events possible.

“I consider it to be somewhat of an honor to be a fan of an organization as classy as the Mudbugs,” said Gail Fleetwood, a season ticket holder and booster club member of eight years. “We have been blessed with many players of great character and talent and we support them in any way we can.”

The Mudbugs organization has outlasted six other minor professional hockey outfits in Louisiana (New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Alexandria, Monroe and Lake Charles). Three other professional franchises in nearby Jackson, (Mississippi), Texarkana (Arkansas) and Little Rock (Arkansas) have also gone by the wayside during the Mudbugs successful tenure.

With a crowds of 7,000-plus in each of their first two home games this season, the Mudbugs look primed to increase attendance again. Making the turn towards a decade in the minor pro hockey business, that is an accomplishment in itself.

“We are getting close to our tenth season and by all accounts that is the measure of success for a minor pro sports franchise,” said Mudbugs General Manager Jason Rent. “We work hard to bring the fans a fun night at the arena and hopefully the results are showing with our continued growth.”

The Mudbugs organization has been the driving force behind BASAHA – the Bossier and Shreveport Amateur Hockey Association. Now including three divisions of youth hockey, an adult division and a high school team there is a grassroots level of hockey in the non-traditional area.

Dan Wildfong, Mudbugs captain and a member of the team since 1999-2000, has been a key person behind starting BASAHA. Despite only having the multi-purpose CenturyTel Center with ice available, Wildfong says the program has been a success.

“We see kids pick up a hockey stick for the first time, get on the ice and they are hooked,” said Wildfong. “Kids love this game and are eager to learn. It really makes our job easier to teach them when they want to get better.”

Combining the appreciation of their fans along with the excitement of hockey in the area makes Muscutt’s job of recruiting each summer much easier.

Since the beginning of Mudbugs hockey in Bossier-Shreveport in 1997-98, as many as 10 players have purchased homes and retired in the area. Some have kept jobs with the team in the business side of hockey, while others are in non-hockey related fields. Either way, they all stayed because of the hospitality they felt as players.

“Playing here it felt so much more like a home compared to other places I had played,” said Tim Hill, a Mudbugs player from 1999 to 2001 and now Corporate Sales Manager. “It is almost like if you are a Mudbug, you are automatically adopted by the city. It is very special.”

The impact is felt on players and staff members who have left the organization as well. Jean Laforest, coach of the first two Mudbugs championship teams and now coach of the expansion Youngstown (OH) Steeldogs, felt it in his return on Oct. 22.

“They have stuck to a plan that has allowed them to be successful and my hat goes off to them,” said Laforest. “To me, it is nice to the effort we put in initially has continued on and the tradition continues to develop in Bossier-Shreveport.”

For retired players like Hill, the transition from the ice to the business world was not easy. He does, however, feel it was easier in his situation by staying in a town and with an organization he felt so close to.

“We have all said it at one time or another, when you hear you are going to Shreveport you have to look at a map to find it. When it comes time to leave, you will never forget it.”

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