PEORIA — The Southern Professional Hockey League never finished its 2019-20 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now it won't be able to start its 2020-21 season on time, either.
The Peoria Rivermen and their nine league partners have been told the SPHL season will not start until at least mid-December, and possibly later. The league usually starts its 56-game schedule in October.
"I'm so disappointed," Rivermen coach Jean-Guy Trudel said. "I love this game. It hurts to see all this happening. But at least I can tell my players something. Up until now, guys have asked and I haven't had an answers.
"I'm pretty sure you'll see the (Double-A) ECHL do something like this, too. The SPHL communicates with the ECHL and AHL, and usually follows its lead. So if we're delaying, I would guess the ECHL is discussing the same timeline."
The Rivermen were in first place when the SPHL suspended play on March 12, and then a few days later officially canceled the 2019-20 season. Peoria is technically the champion, although the league has never declared one.
Now a title defense — virtual or otherwise — is on hold.
"We're at the point where we have to come up with a Plan B," Rivermen co-owner Bart Rogers said. "We're not going to be able to start until possibly late December.
"The logistics are chaotic. We are at the mercy of the COVID-19 health mandates each team functions under in the state they operate in. It's different, team to team.
"Our teams in Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, they could probably play without restrictions on fans attending, or with at least some reduced attendance.
"Here in Illinois, the Rivermen and Quad City teams are under Phase 4, and that means no events can be held. No fans can attend."
And that's disastrous for pro teams — of any sport, really — operating at the minor-league level.
Rivermen veteran captain Alec Hagaman, like many players, is now thrust into limbo.
"It's unfortunate," Hagaman said. "We want to play. But the safest bet is to wait this out until we get a vaccine. Older players have families to support and protect.
"I'm a competitor, and I want nothing more than to get out there. But it's not just about me."
Said SPHL commissioner Doug Price, in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon:
"With the continued spikes in COVID-19 throughout the country, and the challenges other sports are facing in their attempts to resume play, delaying our start until December gives us the best chance of completing and entire season with all 10 teams. ... After a healthy discussion among our Board of Governors, we just felt there are too many variables out of our control to operate if we were to start earlier. ..."
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.