With continued spikes in COVID-19 around the country and the challenges other sports are encountering as they return to play, the Southern Professional Hockey League is delaying the start of its 2020-2021 season.
Normally dropping the puck in late October, the SPHL is pushing the start of its 56-game schedule to mid-to-late December.
“It was a tough decision that we had to make as the Board of Governors with the league,” said Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris. “There (are) so many unknowns, so it was a tough decision, but the right decision to make at this time.”
The SPHL shut down in March, with about 10 games per team remaining in the regular season. One of the major challenges in preparing for the upcoming delayed season is player recruitment – especially those from Canada.
“We’re still trying to figure that out; we could possibly get the immigration status, but whether they’re going to be allowed to cross the border, that’s another question,” Harris said. “Right now, there are so many questions that nobody can answer, and it’s just more of a waiting game and time will tell. Everyone’s proceeding as normal and just hoping that everything can be alright with bringing in Canadian players.”
Another issue is how many spectators, if any, would be allowed into SPHL games. Harris is using recent events at the Pensacola Bay Center as a template of sorts.
“They’ve had some high school graduations here, and they had spaced out and worked well; they had different protocols in place,” said Harris. “We have the advantage of having 8,000 seats in the arena. Those that have been to games, they see the upper bowl is closed, but more than likely we’re going to have to open up the upper bowl and have people seated up there as well – just to make sure they’re spaced apart.”
Meanwhile, work is underway on setting up protocols dealing with testing, which Harris calls “a continuing saga.”
“Players that get called up to us, or if they get traded, what have you,” Harris said. ”It really is different things that we just need to keep battling out. The more sports that we have happening, the easier it’s going to be to figure these things out. We do not want to be the guinea pigs in this; we have to let the other leagues be the guinea pigs.”
And perhaps the biggest guinea pig to watch is three levels up from the SPHL. The National Hockey League’s 24-team Stanley Cup tournament began Thursday in two Canadian cities – Toronto and Edmonton.
“Basically, kind of go through the process for us, and then something we can piggy-back off of based on their success or failure of how they’re handling it,” Harris said. “Not to be biased toward hockey, but they’ve made a ton of right decisions. Being from Canada myself, I see what’s happening up there and how less of an impact it is. They’ve been able to tackle it, and drastically decrease the numbers.”
The SPHL’s 10 member clubs and league administrators are also watching how other sports are restarting amid the pandemic.
“The current situation with [what] the Miami Marlins are going through right now – that’s our worst fear -- having players test positive, and now we’re canceling games,” said Harris. “Minor leagues – no matter what sport – they don’t have that luxury. That’s a big fear, and that’s why these [major] leagues, with nearly unlimited resources, are being the guinea pigs figuring this out for everybody.”
Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris also thanked fans and sponsors for their patience.
“Just everybody [who’s] a part of the organization, no matter how little or big their role is,” said Harris. “These are very trying times, and we’re going to come out of this and we’re all going to look back at this and see how strong we actually come out of this together. Me alone, I just hope this is over sooner than later, like everybody else.”
The 2020-2021 regular season schedule and playoff format for the SPHL’s 14th season will be announced later.