MACON, Ga. – Like a ball rolling down the hill, the 2021-22 SPHL is coming fast and hockey gods willing, will be here before we know it.
You don’t want to say that things will be completely normal, but it will be, in theory as close to normal as things were in January of 2020.
Speaking of 2020, the latter part of last year gave us one of the most unusual hockey seasons of all time in the SPHL in 2020-21.
Before we move into 2021-22, however, here are a few takeaways of what we learned last year.
It takes more than talent
There was no shortage of talent in the league this year. With players that’d usually be on ECHL rosters available, the impact of connects and recruiting showed. Multiple Peoria Rivermen wound up in Pensacola, the same for Fayetteville to Macon. Plus, Logan Nelson, who is on the Atlanta Gladiators protected list, spent the year in Birmingham, and Austin Plevy was among the big scorers landing in Knoxville as a result of Evansville opting out. Macon had two of the top scorers in the league by way of Brian Bowen and Mason Baptista. Speaking of Macon, the Mayhem boasted one of the league’s top goalies in Jake Theut, as did Knoxville with Austyn Roudebush. The challenge became this – getting this new and likely short-term infusion of talent to mesh with an existing core of players. Both Macon and Pensacola had a strong group of one-year additions with Bowen and Baptista being among the league’s top scorers on a team that included Jimmy Soper. You had a similar output in Pensacola where the Ice Flyers met the challenge of blending the likes of Garrett Milan and Eddie Matsushima along with rookie Jake Wahlin and “Peoria South’s” Darren McCormick, Alec Hagaman, Jordan Ernst, and Nick Neville.
To get talent is one thing. Getting that talent to mesh is a whole other challenge, and it’s not a random occurrence that three of the top four teams were led by a head coach with ha title to their name, Kevin Kerr, Rod Adolff, and Glenn Detulleo.
A Stick Tap To The Owners
Either way, an enormous risk was going to be involved this year for owners all over the league. For those with essentially no choice due to local health protocols, a call to opt-out of the past season due to COVID-19 meant that the livelihood of employees was put on hold and hinging on circumstances, those same people may have been forced to move on to something else for good. A year minus hockey also put those teams in the uphill battle to recapture fans following a year without hockey. For owners in places like Fayetteville, Peoria, and Roanoke, it was an unenviable position.
This year was not without risk for teams that made the decision to play, either. These owners and their teams took the ice in a climate of sponsors not able to possibly spend as much revenue on advertising as well as limited capacity in arenas. From the start, there was a knowledge that there’d be a financial hit for these teams.
Nevertheless, a full league plus a new team from Vermillion County is primed for the upcoming season. Next time you’re in an SPHL arena, be sure to thank a team owner because they’re very deserving of such gratitude.
The Best-Of-Three Giveth and Taketh Away
And here we come to everyone’s favorite postseason punching bag and hill to die on – the absurdity of a title being decided by a best-of-three playoff series. Obviously, if you’re a fan of the Macon Mayhem, you’re not as much of a fan of the format now as you were when Macon took advantage to knock off Peoria to win the President’s Cup.
This time, Pensacola showed how powerful that upper hand can be. All you have to do is play lights-out in a series opener as Pensacola did and you just need one win in two games to take a series, and that’s exactly what the Ice Flyers did.
The Mayhem, of course, did just that themselves for their only President’s Cup when they toppled the Rivermen.
In a perfect world, the title series would be best-of-five. Until that time arrives, the reality will be that winning a series opener of a best-of-three provides a very big advantage.
You were missed, rivalries
Sure, we still had the Battle of Bama between Huntsville and Birmingham, but there was something missing this year. The testy moments between Quad City and Peoria were absent, as were the back and forths between Roanoke and Fayetteville. The on-ice intensity was missed, as was the banter in the stands and online among fans. You know the phrase, “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?’ Fans of these rivalries that got put on hold last year can fully relate to that after last season.
For some fans, the season meant living vicariously through where players from their opted-out team were for a season. For Peoria, there had to be a degree of satisfaction for Hagaman to finally host his first President’s Cup, albeit in a Pensacola uniform. For Fayetteville, following the season of guys like Bowen and Josh Victor in Macon gave die-hard Marksmen fans something to follow – there were even a few Fayetteville jerseys in the Macon Coliseum a time or two this year. In the end, hockey is family, and one of many things to look forward to this year is fans league-wide hopefully doing what they grew used to in year’s best – frequently interacting with players.
Just being there meant a lot to a lot of people
For fans and this writer, being able to be back in the arena and seeing hockey, if even from a distancing was a soothing relief after a near year of all events being put on hold. Even if there were hoops to jump through, it was a great feeling to see hockey.
Still, having to be spaced out did create a vacuum. Late in the season when Macon relaxed some of its limitations, not forcing fans to spread out, the energy in the Macon Coliseum was noticeable. It highlighted one of many things that makes this league what it is – the community and camaraderie among fans. Here’s to hoping for more of that this fall.
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