By Vince Little, The BayonetMarch 2, 2011
FORT BENNING, Ga. - Jerome "Boom Boom" Bechard has been the face of hockey in Columbus for 15 years.
On Wednesday, the Columbus Cottonmouths head coach and general manager spoke to a group of middle and high school students about perseverance and chasing dreams during an appearance at the Teen Center. He showed them how to wield a stick and brought a uniform - complete with helmet and face mask, shoulder and shin pads - for a couple of kids to try on.
"I love doing this - I could do it every day," Bechard said. "I got a few stories I can throw in there to get their attention. ... If they grasp just one thing and use it in a positive manner, that's what it's all about."
Ronald Walton, founder and sole operator of the nonprofit Everyone's Chance Inc., organized the event as part of the Positive Career Role Model project. He's conducted engagements around the tricommunity for years but said it's the first time bringing a speaker to Fort Benning.
Bechard was a sixth-round draft choice (115th overall) of the Hartford Whalers in 1989. He never reached the NHL but played 13 seasons in the minor leagues. The left wing came to Columbus in 1996.
"At the time, I had long hair, no teeth and a goatee," he said. "'Boom Boom' was the persona our owner promoted when I got here. I was plastered all over town. The idea was, 'If you thought hockey, you thought Boom Boom.'"
After playing seven years for the Snakes, Bechard spent the 2003-04 campaign as an assistant coach and became head coach the following season. He guided the club to the Southern Professional Hockey League championship in 2004-05.
He said life in the minor leagues can be rugged, too. Teams travel by bus and it's not uncommon to have three games in three nights. The Cottonmouths had a stretch of five-in-seven around Christmas.
"(But) I love what I do. I'm very fortunate," he told the students. "Columbus is a small little town, but I wouldn't want to go anywhere else."
Many in the group asked Bechard about fighting in hockey. Some people view that as entertainment, he said, and that's OK.
"Somebody's always hitting somebody and trying to get under the other guy's skin," he said. "When it comes down to it, it's actually entertaining for the fans. It doesn't matter what sport it is - football, hockey, basketball, NASCAR - we're all entertainers and fans pay to come see you."
Most of the time, hockey players don't lose their teeth in fights but instead get hit by the puck or a stick, the coach said. A slap shot can travel up to 90 mph.
Bechard was 16 when a puck shattered three of his front teeth during a junior league game in Canada. He said he came off the ice for treatment but later returned to finish the game.
"I'm a true believer that sports prepares you for everything in life. You learn a lot of lessons in sports," he said. "But in every sport, you have to be disciplined. I don't want guys running around committing stupid penalties."
Bechard said his role model was Gordie Howe, one of hockey's all-time greats, but pointed out that today's stars are bigger, stronger and faster. The average player in the NHL was 6-feet tall a decade ago - today, that's up to 6-foot-2, he estimated.
"The faster they are, the harder they hit," he said. "Sidney Crosby is the best player in hockey, but he's been out two months because of a concussion."
Raja Gonzalez, 13, an eighth-grader at Faith Middle School, isn't a big hockey fan and just stopped by the Teen Center to hang out with her friends Wednesday when she heard about the visit.
"That was pretty cool," she said afterward. "I didn't know he was missing his front teeth until he pulled 'em out. That was a little creepy."
Faith eighth-grader Yaniliz Fuentes, 13, said she knew he'd talk about the fights.
"That was real interesting, but it was also cool to learn about who inspired him," she said. "I thought he did everything on his own, but he had some inspiration."
Bechard inspired the students to better themselves and pursue their own interests more passionately, said 13-year-old Anashalique Jackson of Faith.
"I liked how he was telling his stories," she said. "It was really special to learn how his life went. He said it was hard and kinda fun."
Columbus (24-22) is fifth in the SPHL standings with 48 points entering Thursday's matchup at last-place Louisiana. The top six teams make the playoffs.
The Cottonmouths play seven of their final nine regular-season contests at the Columbus Civic Center.
"We're playing pretty good hockey right now. It's just a matter of fine-tuning and keeping guys healthy," Bechard said. "I think we could get to third before it's over. We should be able to make some hay and gain some ground at home."
MILITARY APPRECIATION NIGHT
The Columbus Cottonmouths will take on the Louisiana Ice Gators on March 18 during Military Appreciation Night at the Columbus Civic Center. Tickets are available for $2 to the first 1,000 military ID card holders or Department of Defense civilians to purchase them at Omega Travel in the commissary mall or the Columbus Civic Center box office. The game starts at 7:30 p.m.