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They Went To a Hockey Game and a Party Broke Out

March 4, 1996

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) _ The last time anyone can remember a snowfall that whitened the ground in this southwest Louisiana city was back in 1969.

This is a place where ice has always been something you put in drinks and under oysters.

Even so, the hottest thing in Cajun country these days is not Tabasco sauce _ it’s the Louisiana IceGators, a minor league hockey team.

``This is the place to be and the sport to follow around here,″ said 18-year-old Jeremy Rabalais, who wore an IceGators jersey at a recent home game. ``At first I didn’t understand anything except when they scored, but now I know the game and love it.″

He’s got lots of company. People are regularly abandoning the dance floor at Mulate’s for the seats of the Cajundome to watch the first-year IHL franchise.

Through 28 home games this season, 17 were sellouts and the IceGators top league attendance by better than 55,000.

First-year attendance in the 11,026-seat Cajundome was projected at 6,000 per game. It has averaged closer to 10,000.

``People love it,″ said Dome executive director Greg Davis, himself a rabid fan. ``It’s a complete entertainment package. Families come and have a wonderful time. I like it better than basketball.″

Indeed, from the pregame light show with the booming rendition of the theme from ``2001: A Space Odyssey,″ and the players skating onto the ice from a swirl of smoke, to the giveaways of dinners, phone calling cards, gift certificates to hardware stores and oil-change shops, the action never stops.

When the IceGators score, the fans dance with arms extended, clapping them together to indicate a gator chomping away. During lulls in the action, music plays and they dance in the isles. Between periods, there are contests on the ice or the mascot, Alphonse the Alligator, and helpers hurl hotdogs into the stands.

``It’s the biggest thing that’s happening in Lafayette,″ said Malcom Thibodaux of nearby Napoleonville, who had never liked hockey on television.

Helped by a winning record and a first-place berth for much of the season, people quickly fell in love with the fast-moving sport and the party atmosphere.

``I came to one game and went out the next day and ordered season tickets,″ said Ed Landry.

Landry, like many others, knows the players by sight _ but, other than recognizing a score, was not sure of many hockey rules. He didn’t know what the blue line, or icing, or a slap shot were. Landry had learned about power plays, the penalty box and hat tricks. In fact, like most fans, he had a hat with him to toss on the ice if the IceGators managed three goals.

``I wondered if there were any rules,″ said Gretchen Ebow, a Southwestern Louisiana student attending her first game. ``I’ve never seen it before, not even on TV, but it’s really fun.″

Following the games the announcer tells fans where the players are heading for their postgame wind-down. Players later arrive at a local night spot in limousines as crowds shove for autographs.

``They pretty much had to stop going to the mall because they were mobbed every time they showed up,″ said Angela Simoneaux, a reporter, season ticket holder and zealous fan. ``They’re celebrities around here.″

Trading cards showing the players sell for $5, T-shirts are $20, jerseys, boxer shorts, sweat shirts and hats bearing the logo vary in prices. All are hard to get and new shipments sell out quickly.

An offshoot of the enthusiasm is the booming interest in skating in Lafayette. The Cajundome bought 600 pairs of rental skates and opens the rink whenever there is no other event in the building. Skating before noon costs $6; after noon it’s $8 and includes the skates.

``We made $200,000 on skating in the first three months,″ Davis said.

Local sporting goods stores have also begun stocking ice skates for the first time ever.

``Hey, I plan to be the first Cajun hockey star,″ said Jamie Guidry, 12, of Breaux Bridge. ``I just have to learn to skate first.″

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