There will be a Southern Professional Hockey League season for 2020-2021, but only five of the 10 member teams will be dropping the puck because of the novel coronavirus.
Plans are to play a truncated 42-game regular season instream of the normal 56, beginning Dec. 26. The Southern Professional Hockey League is truly “southern” this season. The five clubs are the Birmingham Bulls, Huntsville Havoc, Knoxville Ice Bears, Macon Mayhem and the Pensacola Ice Flyers, where Greg Harris is the owner.
“It was really based on our local-state restrictions – and, in a sense the lack thereof – we were able to have a decent amount of people in the [Pensacola] Bay Center in order to play our home games, which we can make sense of it as well,” Harris said.
Sitting out the short season are the Evansville Thunderbolts, Fayetteville Marksmen, Peoria Rivermen, Quad City Storm and the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs.
“Basically, just because of their restrictions up north; we’re all in markets in states that aren’t nearly as heavy,” said Harris. “We’ve had some markets in the league where they’re only allowed 50 people indoors. That barely covers the arena staff.”
The northern teams are set to return for the 2021-22 campaign, but Harris concedes that is up to the respective states regarding issues such as attendance and protective measures. But he also expresses confidence.
“Every team, right now, is planning on returning; we’ve made decisions as a league and a board of governors to help each other out,” said Harris. “Just to make sure things are going forward [and] we do return with 10 teams and potentially even more in 21-22.”
Due to state and local restrictions related to the pandemic, SPHL Commissioner Doug Price said there was neither enough time nor availability to have a full schedule, without creating additional hardships for the five active teams.
Meanwhile, the Ice Flyers are putting in place the protocols needed for safety, such as mandatory face coverings and social distancing.
“The thing is, if we don’t have buy-in – if we don’t have people doing this – we won’t have a season,” said Harris. “It’s either we all band together as Ice Flyer Nation and do this for two-and-a-half hours [per game], 21 times for the season, and we get to have Ice Flyers hockey this season.”
Meanwhile, on the ice, all of the players on the northern teams, along with those in other leagues and North Americans who normally play in Europe but cannot this season – make up a free agent pool of enormous talent. Harris says that’s keeping him and Head Coach Rod Aldoff busy with recruiting.
“We’re literally going to have five all-star teams in our league; the talent level is going to be insanely high,” Harris said. “Players you would never think about being able to get, you, have. We have a lot of good players from other teams signed up already, and we have a lot of good players coming back for us.”
One of those signees is forward Alec Hagaman, who led Peoria in scoring last year with 52 points, on 29 goals and 23 assists along with serving as the Rivermen’s team captain.
“He’s one of those guys who you absolutely hate to play against, but you’ll take 10 of them on your team,” said Harris. “Just the sheer volume of players that are going to be available is going to be absolutely crazy.”
Additional information on the upcoming season — including the playoff format — will be announced in the near future.
“With five teams, do you have four [with] on team out, or do you do two?” asked Harris. “Do we leave it as the regular-season champion? Do we do a ‘hub city’ for the playoffs? There a lot of different options on the table right now, but we will be announcing something probably after the season gets going.”
There is precedent in minor pro hockey to conduct a season with just five clubs. The inaugural season of the East Coast Hockey League —1988-89 — featured five teams. Now called the ECHL, it has since grown into a 26-team, nationwide operation.