We get to the point of the hockey off-season where many fans are making their summer vacations to the beach, and we at Team Sin Bin are no exception. Your humble correspondent spent last week lounging on the Florida Gulf Coast. Now that I’ve recovered from my sunburn, let’s go over what has been happening across the Southern Professional Hockey League since the Pensacola Ice Flyers scored their literal last-second goal to defeat the Peoria Rivermen to win their third President’s Cup in the last four seasons.
Louisiana IceGators Suspend Operations
The first major off-season news involved the Louisiana IceGators stating the inevitable and closed up shop for the 2016-17 season. The Cajundome, the Gators’ home rink, is undergoing major renovations over the summer – mainly to update and replace the seating and lighting in the 31-year-old arena. With the renovation project extending through the first month of the season, and an inability to secure enough remaining home dates to play in 2016-17, the IceGators had no choice but to scrap the season.
The effects of Louisiana’s lost season has spread throughout the SPHL, with several players relocating to other franchises. Former IceGators captain Jake Hauswirth will be suiting up for the Peoria Rivermen in October. Four Gators were taken in the expansion draft by the Thunderbolts (Luke Sandler & Johnny Daniels) and Rail Yard Dawgs (Travis Armstrong & Massimo Lamacchia). Goaltender Adam Courchaine will tend the net in Huntsville, while fellow netminder Brad Barone will play in Southaven with the RiverKings. Former head coach Drew Omicioli will not coach in the SPHL, rather he will head overseas and coach SG Cortina in Italy’s highest league, and taking defensemen Jordan Ciccarello and Tanner Burton with him.
Rod Aldoff Takes Over Norfolk Admirals Bench
The SPHL is regarded as a developmental pro league, with players and referees working to move up to higher levels of hockey in North America and overseas. The league is also good at grooming coaches for further prospects in pro hockey, and nowhere is this more evident than Pensacola. The Ice Flyers promoted their second coach to the ECHL this summer as Rod Aldoff – winner of two Presidents Cups in three seasons – left Pensacola for the ECHL Norfolk Admirals. In addition to two SPHL championships, Aldoff recorded a 101-51-16 record with the Ice Flyers. The Admirals, playing in their first season since relocating from Bakersfield after the AHL’s western migration in 2015, struggled with a 30-37-5 record.
Aldoff should find success if history is his guide. Aldoff’s predecessor in Pensacola, Gary Graham, took his Fort Wayne Komets all the way to the ECHL Kelly Cup semifinals with a 40-23-9 regular season record, and 124-65-27 since moving up from Pensacola.
Leo Thomas Retires, Begins Coaching Career in Macon
Speaking of Gary Graham, one of his former players will make the transition from the ice to the bench this season. Former Pensacola and Mississippi captain Leo Thomas – who has spent part of five seasons with Graham – announced his retirement from playing hockey. As Thomas announced the end of his playing days, he gave the news of the beginning of his coaching career as Kevin Kerr’s assistant coach with the Macon Mayhem. The hockey community is a small world, and Thomas & Kerr’s relationship goes back to Thomas’ rookie season with the UHL Flint Generals. The two, Thomas at the beginning of his playing career and Kerr nearing the end of his, spent two years as teammates with the Generals. Kerr found initial success with the Mayhem in his first SPHL coaching job, going 24-27-5 and earning a playoff spot while pushing the top-seeded Peoria Rivermen to three games in their opening round series. We look forward to seeing Leo Thomas and Kevin Kerr together again.
Pensacola Ice Flyers Hire Kevin Hassleberg
The departure of Rod Aldoff for the ECHL Norfolk Admirals left the SPHL’s most coveted coaching job up for grabs. After a two-month search, Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris announced the hiring of long-time junior hockey coach and SJHL coach of the year Kevin Hasselberg as the Ice Flyers’ 4th head coach. The new Ice Flyers bench boss begins his professional coaching career after long stints with Olds in Alberta junior hockey and Battlefords in Saskatchewan. We’ll bring you our first interview with the new Ice Flyers coach next month on our podcast.
League Disciplines Peoria over Post-Final Incident
In the midst of the Pensacola Ice Flyers’ celebration after Josh Cousineau scored the President’s Cup winning goal with a tenth of a second remaining in regulation, the Peoria Rivermen were looking for an explanation. The officials, believing their call was correct despite not having replay to fall back on, attempted to skate off the ice. Before they were able to exit the ice, the officials were physically confronted by Rivermen players Adam Stuart, Brandon Greenside, and Dave Pszenyczny.
On August 1, SPHL commissioner Jim Combs issued his disciplinary ruling toward the three Rivermen players, and assistant coach Dustin Fitzpatrick. Pszenyczny received an eight-game suspension for striking a game official, while Fitzpatrick will sit the first three games of the 2016-17 season for throwing a water bottle on the ice (Fitzpatrick has since been named PA announcer for Rivermen games.) The league elected to delay disciplinary rulings on Greenside and Stuart until they opt to return to the SPHL. Stuart signed with EV Regensburg in Germany’s second-tier hockey league, while Greenside is spending the summer in the AIHL with Newcastle. Both will have phone hearings with Combs prior to returning, meaning they will be suspended for at least five games.
SPHL Teams Begin Player Signings
It’s August, and finally at the point of the silly season where teams begin to announce their player signings. We’re getting about 2-3 player signing announcements per day from SPHL teams. Nine of the ten SPHL teams have announced at least one player signing, with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs abstaining. Rather than make some Top-10 list, we’re going to give each team’s top signing thus far in the off-season.
- Columbus Cottonmouths: Goaltender Brandon Jaeger resigned with the Snakes on July 27th. The SPHL All-Rookie tendy impressed with a 2.78 GAA and .920 SV% despite Columbus’ last-place regular season finish. Jaeger has ECHL potential, and could really shine with more blue-line support.
- Evansville Thunderbolts: The expansion team inked four of their draft picks, none more lethal than former Fayetteville FireAntz center Nick Lazorko. With 28 goals scored last season, Lazorko was third in the SPHL in lit lamps in 2015-16.
- Fayetteville FireAntz: This is pretty easy. The Antz traditionally announce signings late in the off-season. However, for the past three seasons, enforcer Brad Drobot has been Fayetteville’s first signing announcement. The Fayetteville fan favorite picked up 125 penalty minutes last season, scrapping 13 times in the process.
- Huntsville Havoc: The Havoc are typically the team which announce many of their signees early in the summer, and this season is no exception. Of the 12 Huntsville signings, none may be more high-risk/high-reward than defenseman Zach Carriveau. The sixth-year pro is an elite blueliner when healthy. However, Carriveau hasn’t played more than 30 games in a season since arriving in the SPHL in 2013.
- Knoxville Ice Bears: Yet another former FireAntz player making this list, John Clewlow was acquired via the Pensacola Ice Flyers last season in the trade which sent ultimate clutch man Josh Couisneau to the Gulf Coast. Although left off the protected list by Knoxville, Clewlow, who scored six goals and nine assists for the Ice Bears in 29 games, resigned for a second season in Knoxville on August 9th.
- Macon Mayhem: When you have the reigning SPHL Goalie of the Year, you do what it takes to get him to return for another year. Mission Accomplished, Macon. Garrett Bartus was sensational in net for the Mayhem last season, making a league-high 1421 saves with a league-leading .929 SV%. Bartus, the former UConn Husky, after bouncing around the ECHL since his college days, may have finally found a home in Macon.
- Pensacola Ice Flyers: Unfortunately for the defending President’s Cup champs, the Ice Flyers have seen more departures than arrivals this off-season, most notably the promotion of Coach Rod Aldoff to the ECHL Norfolk Admirals and the retirement of team captain and SPHL MVP Adam Pawlick. Don’t fret, Flyers Fans… New coach Kevin Hasselberg should still have a talent-laden lineup at his disposal. Hasselberg debuts as a professional coach with 17 years of Junior A experience with the AJHL Olds Grizzlys and SJHL Battlefords North Stars – earning SJHL Coach of the Year honors last season.
- Peoria Rivermen: I was prepared to go with former Louisiana IceGators captain Jake Hauswirth, until the Rivs signed former 2010 Memorial Cup champion goalie Troy Passingham. The new Peoria netminder won the ’10 OHL and M-Cup with the Windsor Spitfires – a team which was absolutely loaded with NHL talent. Taylor Hall (NJD), Adam Henrique (NJD), Cam Fowler (ANA), Zack Kassian (EDM), Ryan Ellis (NSH), and Philipp Grubauer (WAS). After his career in juniors, Passingham went on to college, playing five years at Ryerson University. Passingham went 49-50 during his time, but put up a 2.47 GAA and .933 SV% in his senior season.
- Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs: The Dawgs have yet to publicize any player signings this off-season.
We will continue to track SPHL signings during the off-season. You can look at every team’s activity on our spreadsheet, updated daily. Also, make sure to check out our interview with SPHL commissioner Jim Combs and our upcoming series with the coaches of the SPHL, beginning with new Pensacola coach Kevin Hasselberg – airing next week.