PEORIA — The SPHL may have delayed the start of its 2020-21 season because of COVID-19, but veteran Peoria Rivermen captain Alec Hagaman has already begun his leadership role with the regular-season league champions.
He signed a contract with the Rivermen on Saturday to return for a seventh season. But his team-building has already been under way.
"A group of us keep in touch, every Thursday, we call each other on a Snapchat app and do a group video," Hagaman said, referring to Rivermen players. "I get on there with Jake Hamilton, Jordan Ernst, Eric Levine, Brandon McMartin, lots of guys. We talk about the team, talk about the coming season, catch up on preparing and what's going on with us in our lives. We're maintaining that bond.
"It's a sense of building and maintaining a team, staying together."
Hagaman knows teams that can hit the ground running when the season starts in mid-December will have the high ground in what will likely be a shortened sprint to the playoffs.
Teams won't have time to slump. And Hagaman doesn't have time, either.
"I don't have a job right now, I just finished running my hockey camp and also helped the (tier III junior hockey) Peoria Mustangs run their tryouts," said Hagaman, 30. "Then I talked to my wife, Emily, about playing. She's always had my back, supported me all the way. She told me to go play again, and that made my decision easy.
"My time is ticking away. I want to chase a ring. That's all I really have left to do here."
Rivermen coach Jean-Guy Trudel thought Hagaman was worthy of SPHL MVP consideration last season, and he's happy to have him at the heart of his team again.
"Alec is tough and driven, and he is a tremendous leader," Trudel said. "Guys follow him. And he sets the tone in our room. He grew up in Peoria, watched the Rivermen as a kid, and he respects the tradition and history of the organization and wants to win for the community.
"It would be hard to imagine our team without him."
Hagaman is a terrific combination of skill and sheriff. He’s logged 43 fights in the SPHL. He had a nine-game call-up to ECHL Evansville in 2015-16, but since then as declined multiple call-up offers and stayed with Peoria.
Hagaman has played 299 career regular-season games for the Rivermen, with 106 goals, 149 assists, a plus-111 rating and 12 game-winning goals.
He's played another 27 playoff games, with 10 goals, 11 assists, a plus-6 rating and two game-winners.
He was fourth in the SPHL scoring race with 51 points in 44 games, a career-high eight-game goalscoring streak (second-longest in the league last season) and an 11-game pointscoring streak when COVID-19 shut down the season.
The Rivermen were atop the league with a 33-8-5 record when that happened.
"We're just done talking about championships, we just want to play," Hagaman said. "We know what needs to be done."
The only Peoria-born captain in the near 40-year history of the franchise, Hagaman will also become the first player in 20 years to captain the team at least three consecutive seasons. Darren Maloney wore the "C" for five straight seasons through 2000-01 in the ECHL.
"If I can end my career the way he ended his (with a championship and, later on, induction into the Rivermen Hall of Fame), that would be amazing," Hagaman said. "I'd love that."
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.