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Owner: ‘No Path Forward’ For Rivermen In Upcoming Season

When the Southern Professional Hockey League suspended operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic on March 13, the Peoria Rivermen stood atop the league standings – just as they had in four of the previous five seasons.

But that feat will not be repeated in 2020-21 after the team announced Tuesday it will sit out the upcoming season.

“It’s a sad day for our organization,” said team owner and COO Bart Rogers. “We’ve had 38 years of professionally running hockey here in Peoria – the seventh-longest, continually running franchise in all of minor league sports.

“To have to shut the season down today for the upcoming year, when players should be coming in this weekend and getting ready for opening night, is definitely not the thing we wanted to do. But we really have no path forward with the way the state mandates prohibit large gatherings right now.”

Under Illinois health and safety restrictions for COVID, venues like Carver Arena are limited to single-game attendance of 50 people. Rogers said that prevents the team from generating enough revenue to support its $1.6 million operating budget.

“If we can’t have 2,000-2,500 people here, financially it doesn’t work for us,” he said.

In an email responding to a comment request, Peoria Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar said, "We support the decision of the team and we are looking forward to the 2021-22 season."

The SPHL announced half of its 10 franchises will suspend operations for 2020-21, with the other five teams playing an abbreviated schedule. The other teams sitting out are the Moline-based Quad City Storm, the Evansville (Ind.) Thunderbolts, the Fayetteville (N.C.) Marksmen and the Roanoke (Va.) Rail Yard Dogs.

“Even the five teams going forward are going to be at huge, huge financial risk,” said Rogers. “Expenses aren’t down; they’re actually going crazy through the roof because of COVID. From liability insurance to workers’ compensation to the (coronavirus) testing … just the testing alone for our team, we estimated it at around $60,000-70,000 to test our players every 7-10 days.”

In a news release, league Commissioner Doug Price said the circumstances were “out of our control.”

“When we were forced to suspend play back in March, we immediately turned our focus to the upcoming 2020-2021 season,” said Price. “We waited as long as possible for things to improve so that all of our teams could play this season, but I don’t think any of us imagined we would still be facing these restrictions seven months later.”

Rogers said Rivermen ownership fully intends to return a team to the ice in 2021-22, assuming more fans will be allowed to attend the games.

“We’ve got some business to do to call all of our season ticket holders to make sure that they understand the process moving forward, that we will be back,” he said.

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Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.