By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
A few weeks into this season, which is unlike any other, Pensacola Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris experienced one day particularly more exhausting.
It was past 10 p.m. Another day full of meetings, inquiries, emails, constant phone calls. He scrolled through the call log on his cell phone.
“I was on the phone 72 times that day,” said Harris, now chuckling at the stressful experience in January. “It was a day I will never forget. Really, it was two or three weeks I will never forget.
“But it has made all of just change the way we think and how we approach things and how we do things.”
If there was one benefit of navigating a minor-league, pro hockey season through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, maybe that will be the takeaway.
A year ago this week, the Southern Professional Hockey League first suspended, then cancelled the remainder of the 2020 portion of the season.
The final few weeks of the regular season and the playoffs were wiped out. The SPHL followed the same path as the NHL, the NBA, the PGA Tour and all levels of sports playing back then in shuttering seasons.
“I really was thinking about that a few days ago, back when we got to March 12th, which is when first shut down last year, and March 15 when we decided we could not continue,” Harris said. “It was definitely a moment where you just sit back and you are in awe of what has happened.”
Learning to adjust on the fly, just like an in-game line shift in the neutral zone, the Ice Flyers and four other SPHL teams playing this season, have navigated through uncertainty.
The Ice Flyers game Friday night at Birmingham against the Birmingham Bulls – their only game this weekend — was No. 27 in a 42-game schedule, which ends May 1.
In the early part of the SPHL season, which began Dec. 26, there have been games cancelled and rescheduled due to issues with Covid-19 protocols. One night, league games were played with a 4 on 4 format. There have been date switches with opponents.
And assorted other adjustments.
“I think overall it has gone well,” Harris said. “(Players) throughout our league, are just happy to be playing. So they know the sacrifices. We heard some players didn’t want to play. Some players (who opted out) felt it was too risky.
“But the guys here, our guys, our staff, have all bought into the restrictions. It is a small, temporary sacrifice that we all have to make to put the season on for our community. We have no doubt that we are going to be finishing the season and we want to finish strong.”
One of the Ice Flyers logistical challenges was not related to Covid-19. The hurricane related damage on the Pensacola Bay Bridge, connecting Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach to the city, forced Harris to change housing arrangements.
Normally, the players stay at rented condos on Pensacola Beach. This year, Harris rented condos at Perdido Key, including one for Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff, to avoid the lengthy, round-about commute to the Bay Center.
“We have eight or nine condos on Perdido Key for 4-5 months. I pay for those condos,” Harris said. “It’s good, because I am able to inject some funds into Perdido side. People may not realize, but we spend six figures in housing the team.
“This was a way to keep everyone on the beach and have that lifestyle, but also get back to playing hockey and getting to the arena easier.
“We have tried to organize some things for the players outside of the game, outside of the rink, just from a mental health standpoint. There are some outlets the staff can have. Every team had to create their own bubble.”
A year ago, Harris and the other SPHL owners spent countless hours on zoom calls and cell phones trying to figure out the future. It was finally determined in late summer that five teams in the league – Peoria, Roanoke, Evansville, Fayetteville and Quad City – could not play due to local and state restrictions with arenas.
“It was a logistical nightmare, but we got through it,” Harris said. “The league office had to create so many different schedules. They did one with an October start, a November, a December start.
“We stayed diligent, we stayed on top of it. We just got prepared as a league to do as best as possible and knowing we were going to have to make adjustments.
“Our concern as a league for the inactive teams was making sure they would be back next season. Same with teams that were playing, making sure they were back. We didn’t want to put any team in a situation where now they are losing franchises.”
That aspect has been solidified. And the SPHL recently announced a new team, the Vermillion County Bobcats, based in Danville, Illinois and featuring the league’s first female owner, Ellen Tully, will join the league next year.
It will give the SPHL an 11-team league when the 2021-22 season starts anew in seven months.
“To have expand our league in a pandemic shows the strength of our league and our business model,” Harris said.
Looking back, Harris readily believes it’s been the most challenging, eventful 12 months as a team owner and his entire business career.
There have been emergency board meetings among owners. A 23-page document created by the league, as well as additional pages Harris wrote just for the Ice Flyers on a return-to-play protocol.
There was a decision on how many tickets to sell for each game, which the Ice Flyers set at 3,159 per-game cap. The team had to decide how to arrange the seats. How to maneuver season-ticket holders into best possible locations for this season.
“There have been a lot of emotions,” Harris said. “You just had to take so many factors into consideration. Is it going to be safe for players, fans, staff to even have games? Then it was, like, how do we get through this? At that time we shut down last year, the worst part of this pandemic was to come.”
In 13 home games this season, the Ice Flyers have drawn 30,553, the most among the five teams playing this season. Their 2,350 per-game average is slightly ahead of Huntsville as best in the league.
“I’ve been extremely encouraged by the reaction and support we have been given throughout all of this,” Harris said. “It was a goal of mine to bring live events back to Pensacola, back to the area, so that fans could come out and watch in a safe environment and we have accomplished that.”