MACON, Ga. – It’s about two months later than many are used to, and it’ll be the most unique season in SPHL history, but at long last, the SPHL officially gets on the ice this weekend with the start of the season.
Four of the league’s five participating teams will play on Saturday, with the only outlier being Macon, which plays at Huntsville on Monday.
Here are five things to watch as the season begins.
Some In, Some Out
On October 6, the league announced not only a 42-game season but, more critically, that five teams would be opting out for the 2020-21 season as a result of local and state restrictions in place due to COVID-19. They are Peoria, Evansville, Quad City, Roanoke, and Fayetteville. That leaves Macon, Pensacola, Huntsville, Birmingham, and Knoxville as those playing this season.
Here for a visit?
Five teams opting out means that there’s all of a sudden an influx of players available, giving every locker room the conundrum of balancing new faces with those already in place.
Pensacola may as well be Peoria-By-The-Sea this year to a degree with three Rivermen, Alec Hagaman, Jordan Ernst, and Nick Neville, having opted to play for the Ice Flyers while Rivermen Alec Baer and Cody Dion are expected to be in the fold for Birmingham as well as Taylor Pryce by way of Quad City last season. Knoxville has snagged some muscle in Travis Armstrong by way of Roanoke and reigning SPHL Rookie of the Year Austin Plevy, who starred for Evansville last year.
Get Ready to Shuffle
Flexibility will be the operative word for the league this year. The odds are that due to COVID-19 cases in some areas, games being delayed may be expected. That’s already happened once, with Knoxville’s December 31 home opener being postponed and the first game at home for the Ice Bears now being January 8.
In the end, teams and fans can play their part by taking steps to keep themselves and others around them safe by wearing a mask in public, washing hands frequently, practicing social distancing, and staying home while sick.
Sort of new bench bosses in Macon, Birmingham
Kevin Kerr, who led the Macon Mayhem to a President’s Cup title in 2017, is back in town for his second stint as the Mayhem’s head coach. He’ll be looking to do what has been done before, craft a team into one that can win a championship.
The current Mayhem team is a shell of the one that captured a league title, as just two from that team – Stephen Pierog and Stathis Soumelidis are still on Macon’s roster, and the latter of those is actually back in Macon after being traded to Fayetteville last year.
There’ll also be a new face leading the Birmingham Bulls, for the time being, with Craig Simchuk moving into the head coach role while Jamey Hicks tends to a family matter in Canada. Jerome Bechard will also come aboard as an assistant coach while his current team, the Columbus River Dragons in the FPHL, sorts through its plan to return to play. Simchuk played for Bechard in Columbus prior to the Cottonmouths ceasing operations after the 2017-18 season.
Who’ll Stop The Havoc?
The regular season is mostly irrelevant as far as the Huntsville Havoc go. As long as the postseason includes them, the road to a title goes through Rocket City. The two-time defending champs finished no higher than third in the final standings going into the President’s Cup Playoffs in 2018 and 2019, only to win the championship each time.
It’s an overused cliche, but the Havoc has built a strong culture. They have multiple players who know what it takes to win a championship, meaning that there’s no mystery about what to do when it comes time for a playoff push. With players such as Peter Sikalis and Nolan Kaiser on defense, Sy Nutkevich and Tyler Piacentini at forward, and Max Milosek in goal, any title run must first go through Huntsville.
We’ll have team-by-team previews on Saturday as we get you prepped for the 17th SPHL season!
For the latest coverage of the Macon Mayhem and the SPHL, follow Brad Harrison on Twitter @SinBinMayhem!