Northern newcomers a highlight to 2013-14 SPHL season

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerOctober 22, 2013 

When ownership groups in Bloomington and Peoria, Ill., approached commissioner Jim Combs about joining the Southern Professional Hockey League, Combs reminded them that the "S" in the league's title stands for "Southern."

Their response was simple.

"They told me that they were in southern Illinois and that was close enough," said Combs, with a chuckle.

Celebrating its 10th year of existence, the league has expanded to a record-high 10 teams. In addition to cornerstone franchises in Columbus, Huntsville, Ala., Knoxville, Tenn., and Fayetteville, N.C., the SPHL moved westward to Biloxi, Miss., Lafayette, La., and Pensacola, Fla. The Mississippi RiverKings, who play in the Memphis area, Bloomington and Peoria complete the 2013-2014 list. The Cottonmouths' cross-state rival Augusta RiverHawks have suspended operations this season.

The obvious disadvantage of Midwest expansion is lengthy travel, but there is an upside.

"It opens the door for a northern division," Combs said. "It opens up a whole new corridor. The more teams you have, the stronger you are. There are cities in that area which have had teams in the past. Cities like Dayton, Louisville and Huntington, W. Va., could be interested."

There is precedent for expansion much more rapid than the gradual increase experienced by the SPHL.

"The ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League) was just a little league with eight teams," Combs said. "Then it went to 14, 18 and eventually 30. It got big quick."

The SPHL's expansion will be done cautiously as Combs has two major concerns.

"The financial model must stay the same," Combs said. "Also we must keep it affordable family fun. If we raise the budgets, other teams' fans and owners will pay the price. We were approached by two teams in Texas, but the closest city was 12 hours away, even from Louisiana. It made no sense. Knoxville, Huntsville and Memphis are actually closer to Bloomington than they are to Fayetteville."

The midwest expansion of the league's footprint provides a peek into its future.

"We are working toward getting 12 teams in the south and 6 teams in the north," Combs said. "We're trying to do it with the right partners in the right cities. It's important that we get local owners."

Combs would like to explore more possibilities along the Interstate 10 corridor, which now includes Pensacola, Louisiana and Biloxi.

"Mobile and Baton Rouge would be great, but we need to find local owners," Combs said. "Tallahassee would be good, but they're done with hockey. Lake Charles would also be good. We have to consider stability and teams that would meet the parameters of our league."

As the SPHL celebrates its 10th season, Combs reflected on the many areas in which the league has grown and improved.

"We have experienced growth in every way," Combs said.

"Not only have we seen it in our ownership groups and fans, but in community involvement as well. We work directly with the National Hockey League on officiating with USA Hockey. We are considered the premier developmental league for officials. The level of play has gone through the roof. The ECHL wants to send players here to get their feet wet."

Combs cited the example of Riley Gill, who was named SPHL goaltender of the year last season.

"Riley Gill missed the last six weeks of the season and went to the ECHL for the playoffs. He was named the MVP of the playoffs and has signed a contract this year with the AHL. This draws attention to our league. People ask where this guy was playing before," Combs said.

Combs anticipates finding cities and ownership groups that are a good geographic match for Peoria and Bloomington, which would mean dividing the league into divisions.

"We have a few projects in the works," Combs said.

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