PENSACOLA, Fla. – If you are reading this, you have likely heard about the Southern Professional Hockey League’s return to play plans for the 2020-21 season. The Pensacola Ice Flyers will be one of the five teams taking part in the abridged season.
The Ice Flyers along with the Birmingham Bulls, Huntsville Havoc, Macon Mayhem, and the Knoxville Ice Bears are slated to play 42-game schedules starting Saturday, Dec. 26.
The Ice Flyers will play their first game back in the Pensacola Bay Center in over nine months when they take to the ice inside the Hangar on Wednesday, Dec. 30. According to Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris, the full schedule should be released in the next couple of weeks.
The league waited as long as they could in hopes of being able to have all, or some, of the league’s other five teams (Evansville Thunderbolts, Fayetteville Marksmen, Peoria Rivermen, Quad City Storm, and Roanoke Rail Yards Dawgs) to be able to play. Ultimately, the restrictions in those areas were not sufficiently lifted to make the 2020-21 season viable in time.
“We waited as long as we felt we could for states which have SPHL markets to have their protocols and restrictions improve but there was not enough for the (other) five teams to go forward this season. It’s an extremely heavy decision that has been building to this point for the last seven months,” Harris said.
While only half the league will take part in this season, Harris is optimistic that the league will be back to normal after this season.
“It’s terribly unfortunate to not have our league at full strength this season, but we’re all looking forward to the return of 10 SPHL teams for the 2021-22 season.”
Since five of the league’s 10 teams are sitting out, the players on those teams’ Protected Lists are now considered free agents. In an effort to be as fair as possible to the teams sitting out, the rights to their protected players will still belong to their 2019-20 team after the 2020-21 season.
With a league half the size of normal, the level of play in the SPHL stands to greatly increase. Another thing to consider, however, is how the smaller league size means fewer teams for ECHL coaches to pick from when looking for a player to fill a roster spot on their teams.
“The talent pool will be insanely high,” Harris said.
The Ice Flyers owner referenced that not only will you have five teams worth of SPHL players, you’ll also have rookies coming into the league, players who would have been ECHL level players who are now looking for roster spots elsewhere, as well as guys who were going to or were previously playing abroad who now cannot make their way overseas.
One key consideration for the Ice Flyers organization and the Bay Center is seating. Some major modifications must be made and that can be complicated with season ticket holders wanting to maintain their usual, preferred seats but having to factor in social distancing guidelines.
“Our seating chart for our games will consist of social distancing protocols and we’re working on finalizing it,” Harris said. “Once we have it completed, it needs to be approved by the Bay Center’s management team. The situation is fluid and working towards a solution where we balance the placement of season tickets and walk-up tickets while providing a safe environment that needs to happen in order to have Ice Flyers hockey this season.”
Obviously, a lot of things are still up in the air but now with a start date to target, the Ice Flyers, Harris, and his staff can start putting their noses to the grindstone to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible with the 2020-21 season.
Don’t forget to follow Geoff on Twitter @SinBinIceFlyers the latest Ice Flyers news during this extended offseason!