By Bill Vilona – Contributing Writer for the Ice Flyers
The Pensacola Ice Flyers will be part of a shortened season in the Southern Professional Hockey League with half the teams and 14 less games.
But they are committed to play, which team owner Greg Harris is confident can happen after Christmas on Dec. 26 when the SPHL’s five available teams are set to begin a 42-game schedule.
“This decision among our league was not made lightly,” said Harris, following Tuesday’s official announcement by the SPHL on having a 2020-21 season. “There are quite a few things we still need to figure out. But barring nothing going in reverse, we will have hockey here in Pensacola.”
The Ice Flyers will be joined in an all-South Division season by the Birmingham Bulls, Huntsville Havoc, Knoxville Ice Bears and Macon Mayhem. Each team will have a schedule of 21 home, 21 away games as opposed to a 56-game schedule that has existed since the league was founded in 2004.
The Ice Flyers first home game at the Bay Center will be Dec. 30. The entire schedule will be finalized soon.
The North Division teams, comprised of the Evansville (Ind.) Thunderbolts, Fayetteville (N.C.) Marksmen, Peoria (Ill.) Rivermen, Quad City (Ill.) Storm and the Roanoke (Va.) Rail Yard Dawgs have suspended operations due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its effect in those areas.
Those five teams are expected to resume playing in the SPHL the following season.
State and local restrictions governing those teams have limited an ability to hold events with spectators. Like all minor league sports entities, having fans at games is essential to making revenue and meeting expenses.
For the South Division teams, while it won’t be business as usual and with limited ticket sales, there is approval to hold games with fans.
“This is a tough day for the SPHL, particularly because the circumstances that forced these decisions are out of our control,” said SPHL Commissioner Doug Price in a news release. “When we were forced to suspend play (last season) back in March, we immediately turned our focus to the upcoming 2020-2021 season.
“We waited as long as possible for things to improve so that all of our teams could play this season, but I don’t think any of us imagined we would still be facing these restrictions seven months later.
“Between the delayed start and the numerous cancelled events also booking replacement dates in 2021, there just was not enough time nor availability to have a full 56-game schedule without creating additional hardships for the five teams attempting to play this season.”
When the Ice Flyers host their first home game on Dec. 30, it will also be a debut for some of the arena enhancements, which include a new big-screen video board and other electronic video boards. The Bay Center will have the new video boards ready for that game.
“It will be quite an interesting experience,” Harris said. “Not just because of protocols we will have in place, but also the first game with brand new video scoreboard and the two video panels in the corners.
“There will be six video screens and fans will be inundated with fan cams and content. It’s going to be an entirely different game experience — way more than we ever imagined.”
The Ice Flyers were 10 games from completion of last season in mid-March when the first impact of COVID-19 was experienced. It forced a shutdown of the remaining regular-season games and playoffs.
They had four home games left when it ended.
“Our goal (among SPHL owners) from the second that was decided (cancel end of last season), was to play in the 2020-21 season,” Harris said. “We’ve made adjustments like every business has.
“This is not going to be an easy thing to do and to pull off, but I think with everybody’s help and cooperation, we will be able to have Ice Flyers hockey for an entire season.”
Harris said decisions as far as how fans will enter the arena, whether protective masks must be worn at all times, how many tickets will be sold and how fans will be spaced at the 8,000-seat Bay Center, will all be decided in the weeks ahead.
“But it was extremely important to do something now and give our community some positive news, especially with everything going on,” Harris said. “And knowing that there will be social distancing, there will be different protocols in place… but the end result is we have Ice Flyers hockey back.
“For people to come to a live sporting event in a safe environment is extremely important.”
Harris said the Ice Flyers will likely begin training camp on Dec. 18. Rod Aldoff will return as Ice Flyers coach. Several players from last season have already be re-signed to begin this year.
Season tickets are now available. Single-game tickets will go on sale once a schedule is finalized.