Ice Flyers Correspondent
As gentle waves were rolling nearby, the sun sparking off the water, a fellow team owner turned to Greg Harris and offered a consensus opinion.
“Be prepared to have league meetings here every year,” he said, half-jokingly, to the Ice Flyers host owner, during the recent gathering of Southern Professional Hockey League executives at the Holiday Inn Resort on Pensacola Beach.
The combination of perfect weather that week, along with a mix of morning meetings and beachside relaxation, provided a perfect respite for a league that navigated through its most challenging season.
The SPHL endured with five South Division teams playing. A reduced schedule. Limited seating at arenas. Frequent testing. Games rescheduled.
All natural issues with teams dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But ultimately the league finished the year as hoped and with the Ice Flyers’ fourth championship now part of its history. The SPHL meetings on the beach enabled some closure.
“It was something that everyone needed,” said SPHL commissioner Doug Price. “We have all been couped up for the last year and a half. And we are like a big family.
“So for everyone being able to get together and hang out, it was a chance for everyone to let go and enjoy the fruits of what we have gone though and recognize that, hey, we did make it.”
Harris, who has been team owner for all of Pensacola’s SPHL titles, won’t complain if the league wants to make Pensacola Beach its destination for the annual post-season meetings.
“It was just a good weekend,” Harris said. “We had 10 of 11 teams represented. We had the owners, the alternate governors, the (SPHL) league office. And we had our vendors there.
“I was already starting to get feedback after the first night about making it here every year. They loved it. The beach was beautiful. The hotel was great. The biggest thing is they want to bring their families.
“It’s something I want to do, being able to give back to the community. You will now have these owners and vendors going back and spreading the word about Pensacola and the beach, so it’s a big plus.”
While any rules changes or game issues won’t be finalized until later, there are a couple certain elements about the next season.
Price said the SPHL will start its 2021-22 season on Saturday, Oct. 15. The season will conclude on April 9, 2022. It will be a return to 56 games divided into 28 home and away dates.
All the arenas will operate at full capacity. There will be 11 teams competing with the newest addition, the Vermillion County Bobcats in Danville, Illinois, joining to make a six-team North Division.
“This year was about surviving,” Harris said. “Next year is about recovering. It will be back to normal and everyone right now able to sell every seat in their buildings.”
The SPHL was forced to suspend its season in mid-March 2020, wiping out the playoffs and not having a winner hoist the President’s Cup.
After months last summer of debate, concern and planning, the league operated a 42-game season without the North Division teams.
The league gathering on Pensacola Beach was a sign for business as usual.
“This was the first meeting we have been able to do in person since we shut down the season due to COVID,” Price said. “The fact we were able to get back together… have some semblance of normal … was really great.
“It was great to see everybody again. That was the biggest part of it was getting everyone back together, relax together and dine together.”
Many minor league organizations in professional sports, including several in hockey, opted to not attempt playing a season the past year. The SPHL was an exception among non-affiliated leagues.
“I think it was one of the most stressful years and one of most rewarding at the same time,” Price said. “It was kind of a guess. No one knew what was going to happen once we started playing. We knew we were going to hit some bumps in the road and didn’t know whether they would be little or big.
“But credit to the teams that played and protocols we established. I think we ended up postponing fewer games than everyone thought. I think one of the keys, too, was the teams that did play were so geographically centered that we were able to flip-flop the road team if we needed too.
“So we had a lot more flexibility to make sure we got those games in. Getting all those games in was testament to everyone.”
The Ice Flyers finished in third place, then caught fire in the playoffs. They swept both best-of-three-series to win their fourth championship in eight years. The Ice Flyers tied the Knoxville Ice Bears for the most titles in league history.
“Even going back to the ECHL days, Pensacola has always been a fantastic hockey market,” said Price, who worked in the higher-level ECHL for 18 years in a variety of roles. “Greg, when he took over as owner, has come in and done a fantastic job.
“In winning four championship, it tells you they are doing something right.”