Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Written by Nathan Stubbs
Old traditions find new life as Lafayette entrepreneur Danny Smith tries to resurrect both IceGators hockey and live music at Grant Street Dance Hall.
The year was 1996. Bill Clinton had just been re-elected to a second term. Mission: Impossible debuted on the big screen, and the Spice Girls and Doritos 3ds made their short-lived splash into pop culture. In Lafayette, the hottest ticket in town was the Louisiana IceGators. The improbable union of ice hockey and south Louisiana Cajun country was a booming success, and the story of the town’s new love affair even got featured in Sports Illustrated.
Danny Smith was 15 years old. He attended his first IceGators game with his mom, who had won tickets off the radio, not knowing quite what to expect.
The electric atmosphere soon had Smith on his feet. And by the second period, when one of the commonplace fights broke out on the ice between two opposing players, Smith was hooked. “I’m from New Iberia,” he says, “so I knew a little something about [fighting].”
Beyond the brute drama, Smith was captivated by the finesse and technique of the game itself, to the point where he got himself a pair of skates, a hockey stick and a ball and started jumping the fence at the local tennis courts to practice by himself. Hockey would remain a driving, positive influence on Smith. For 10 straight years, he attended every home IceGators game with his family. He also played in city youth leagues, and went on to help form and play on UL Lafayette’s first hockey team.
Now, at age 31, Smith is hoping to bring the magic of the Louisiana IceGators back to Lafayette. “I want hockey to be here,” he says, “because it was a good thing to me, me and my parents. I see it so often, all the little roller hockey kids and the ice hockey kids always [go to IceGators’ games] with their parents every Friday and Saturday night, and there’s a lot worse places they could be on a Friday and Saturday night than out with their parents.
“I was the last guy [still going to games],” he continues. “I was 22, 23 [years old], every Friday and Saturday night with my parents at a hockey game. Everybody else was out [at bars].”
Last year, Smith ponied up the money to reconstitute the team, which had folded in 2004, convinced the business model could work in the right environment.
Part of the reason the original IceGators team went out of business, Smith says, is because the East Coast Hockey League kept expanding, and team budgets ballooned from an average of $1.1 million a year to $2.5 million. Smith has now brought the team into the smaller, more manageable Southern Professional Hockey League and moved the team games from the Cajundome to Blackham Coliseum. In addition to being less expensive, teams are allowed to keep concession stand money at Blackham. This allowed him to get the team’s annual budget back to a more manageable $1.2 million a year.
Because of the changes, Smith was unsure whether to bring the team back as the IceGators, or as something entirely new. Ultimately, he feels he made the right decision.
“You’re being held against such a high standard because with an organization that had a $2.5 million budget, and played in a $20 million arena,” he says. “You’re going to have those perceptions that people are going to expect certain things when you come back with a team with a $1.2 million budget and a $800,000 building. It was tough. I thought maybe we should have gone the other way, but after a full season, we’re better off being the IceGators. The tradition is still there. The fans are still there. There’s a base of 1,100 fans that are coming no matter what: win, lose, rain, shine. So it’s our job to go out there and energize another 2,000-3,000 fans. I feel confident it’s going to happen; it just takes time.”
One big initiative Smith and the IceGators will be undertaking is an attempt to rebuild Lafayette’s youth hockey leagues. At its peak, local leagues had some 750 kids participating. Smith says that number has now dwindled to about 70. “That needs to change,” he says. “We’re going to start doing a lot of stuff at Blackham next year for the kids, put some leagues in there and do some different things. It’s going to help out hockey. It’s gonna help the pro team, and the pro team can help the kids. They’ll kind of feed off each other.”
Last year, Smith acknowledges, sales and promotions took a back seat to the more immediate needs of putting a team together and installing a rink in Blackham Coliseum. Things then hit a low point in February, when the team’s general manager and head coach, Brent Sapergia, received an indefinite coaching ban from the SPHL following an infamous meltdown during a game where he tossed at least a dozen hockey sticks onto the ice from the team bench. The incident aired on Good Morning America, and the Youtube video went viral.
Smith acknowledges some mistakes last season with management but is confident in the team he now has assembled. Under head coach Dave MacIsaac, who took over at the end of last season, the IceGators should field a more competitive team, he says. Smith has also brought back Dave Berryman, part of the original IceGators ownership team, as the team’s new president and general manager. “His knowledge is unbelievable,” Smith says of Berryman. “Next year is going to be so much better. With the return of Dave Berryman you’re going to see a lot more of the old type of stuff that the IceGators had before. Business-wise, Dave’s going to make a big difference.
“We took a financial loss in year one,” he continues, “but everything’s kind of set up for season two.”
Season tickets are already on sale for the seven-month season, which runs from October through April.
Assembling quality business partners and managers has been a key to success for Smith, who has an ownership stake in six other area businesses. He got his start in night clubs, somewhat ironic for someone who, to this day, does not touch alcohol. As a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student at UL, Smith took a job as a doorman at The Keg on the McKinley Street strip near campus. A year later, he bought the bar Jules on Jefferson Street from a manager at The Keg. A year later, he bought NiteCaps. Shortly afterward, he branched out into other businesses: He opened The Manor reception hall in Cade and bought Les Amis Florist & Gifts in the South College Shopping Center. Two years ago, Smith became the latest in a long line of owners of Lafayette’s most famed live music venue, Grant Street Dance Hall. He also bought and took over Brewski’s bar and grill on Johnston Street. At the beginning of this year, Smith partnered with two other co-owners of Karma downtown.
Along with the IceGators, Smith is attempting another revitalization of sorts with Grant Street. When he first took over the club, he began running successful hip hop music nights at the club on Saturdays, a conversion that infuriated some of Grant Street’s longtime patrons and live music zealots. And when Smith was approached by old friend and local musician Drew Landry about bringing live music back to Grant Street, he had already been considering moving the hip hop demo to Karma.
“It’s back to full time live music,” Smith says. “That’s a tough, tough business to be in, but that’s what Grant Street needs to be I think.” So far, so good. With Landry handling booking and Jana Broussard managing, the club’s return to live music has shown promise, and brought back national touring acts like Richie Havens and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Smith hopes to sell at least partial ownership interest in Grant Street to someone more involved in the live music scene.
“I’ve never been a big live music guy,” he says. “I just liked the building, and I like the way people respond to it. There’s nobody that fanatical about The Keg or Brewski’s the way they’re fanatical about that place.
“If they had a more active owner, it’d be more successful,” he adds. “I’m passively looking for that person.”
With everything on his plate, Smith says it can take away from the time he wants to spend at home with his wife and two daughters, but there’s never a dull moment.
“Every single thing I do, I like,” he says. “I never feel like I’m at work.”