After a nine-month hiatus, it’s back to the ice for the Pensacola Ice Flyers and four other Southern Professional Hockey League clubs, who are playing a truncated season with fewer teams and fewer games thanks to the coronavirus.
The geographically southernmost teams – Pensacola, the Birmingham Bulls, Huntsville Havoc, Knoxville Ice Bears, and the Macon Mayhem – are playing a 42-game season. Ice Flyers head coach Rod Aldoff says with only one other minor league in operation, the ECHL, there’s been a bumper crop of talent to recruit.
“Obviously, when the league announced the five teams were dropping out, obviously a lot of teams became available from other teams,” said Aldoff. “So our goal was to go after a few guys that we thought would fit well with our team and we did, and they’re here.”
This Ice Flyers squad has a definite Peoria flavor. Four players who were on the Rivermen last season are now wearing Pensacola blue. Aldoff says they fit the type of player he set out to sign.
“All the guys we brought in are good pros and at the end of the day, coming to Pensacola was their goal of winning a championship,” Aldoff said. “We’ve always had a mutual respect and always had a good battle with [Peoria]. But at the same time, we wanted to make it clear to them that they’re wearing our jersey now and to be proud of that – which they are.”
The Ice Flyers opened up on the road at Birmingham Saturday night, erasing a 3-0 deficit to win 4-3 in overtime.
“We saw a lot of stuff in that game; we had adversity early in that game and all the way through bouncing back,” said Aldoff. “The outcome was perfect but as far as the game went, I wish it would have went [sic] easier in a good way. But looking back I think it was really good that when we have our adversity, we’re down in hole early, it says a lot about the guys. They stuck to it, they kept fighting and chipped away.”
One of the concerns going into the season, says Aldoff, was the lack of a normal pre-season practice schedule.
“Taking that much time off, and here’s the other thing,” Aldoff said. “Most of our guys are from up north – Canada or the northern states – where [in] some states there’s no rinks open. The skating’s been limited for some guys. They’ve been training and they’re in shape, but hockey shape is a different ballgame.”
Another challenge unique to the pandemic for the players was even finding a team for the 2020-2021 season.
“Some guys made decisions just to work; they didn’t want to take the chance so they just stuck with getting a job,” said Aldoff. “But at the end of the day we made it work, and the owners in our league – the 5 teams are making it work and we’re going to keep the guys as safe as we can daily, just so we can have a league and play the season out.”
Both on and off the ice, the team will be under close scrutiny to avoid the chance of a COVID-19 outbreak. And Aldoff says that means everyone.
“Not just for the players – for me, the coaching staff, the trainers, the office staff, for everybody,” Aldoff said. “You’ve got to look at as we’re fortunate to be playing, so don’t mess it up. Make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
When the fans come to the Pensacola Bay Center for Wednesday night’s home opener against Birmingham, Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris said the safety protocols, such as mandatory face coverings and social distancing, will be in place.
“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.”
The Ice Flyers are capping ticket sales at 3,200, less than half-capacity. A seating chart at the Bay Center was developed for social distancing, which will have from one to six “pods," or seats.
“They’re spread out throughout the entire arena, the lower level and the upper bowl as well,” Harris said. “If someone wants three seats, they’re going to have to look at a pod of three; that’s the industry standard at this point, and where everybody is going to now. We can all do this; we’re going to do everything we can – we just need the fans’ support.”
Along with Peoria, sitting out the short season are the Evansville Thunderbolts, Fayetteville Marksmen, Quad City Storm and the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs. They’re set to return for the 2021-22 campaign,