PEORIA — Eric Levine was coming back to anchor the goaltending spot for the Peoria Rivermen.
Alec Hagaman was returning as captain. Cody Dion, reigning SPHL Defenseman of the Year Nick Neville, sniper Jordan Ernst were coming back.
And, surprise, so was prolific scorer Darren McCormick, opting to return from Europe to join the Rivermen.
In fact, 18 players from last season’s first-place club were ready to pick up where they left off when the SPHL season was canceled in early March because of the COVID pandemic.
We'll never know what the 2020-21 Peoria Rivermen might have been.
But we do know who they would have been.
The Rivermen, after opting out of the coming Southern Professional Hockey League season -- which won't start until Dec. 26 -- exist as a list of names on a roster that will never see action on the ice.
The Rivermen had a full team signed and never had the chance to announce them to their fans before they became five of the league's 10 teams in early October to shut down for '20-21 because of COVID regulations.
We've got those names for you here, and it was a team Rivermen fans would have loved.
McCormick was signed. At the time he left for Europe last season he had 15 goals and eight assists. After 16 games. Not a misprint.
Levine reconsidered retirement and had signed with the Rivermen to return for '20-21. He was the SPHL's No. 1-ranked goaltender last season.
Peoria-born captain Alec Hagaman settled on returning for another season. On Tuesday, he became the first Rivermen player to land on a new team, signing for '20-21 with bitter rival Pensacola.
There will be more of these in the coming days and weeks. It will be hard for Rivermen fans to watch.
So what happens to all these guys?
How it works, for now: Each of the league’s 10 teams, over the summer, submitted a 13-man protected roster list.
The league says players protected by one of the five teams that opted out of the ’20-21 season -- the Rivermen are one of them -- can play for one of the five teams that chose to participate.
When the ’20-21 season ends, the rights of those players will then revert back to the inactive teams that protected them last summer.
But what about all those players those five inactive teams signed, outside their protected 13 list, for the coming season? The Rivermen have 25 players under contract.
Hagaman was not on Peoria’s protected 13 list in the summer, because there was no doubt he would only sign here. Hence, no need to waste a protected spot. The league says it will make an exception with Hagaman -- an unprotected, established player -- and return his rights to the Rivermen at the end of the ’20-21 season.
McCormick and Levine are in that category, too, but it doesn’t mean exceptions will be extended for them.
Rivermen players would be well-advised to include contract language for ’20-21 that assures free agency with any team they sign with.
"Alec Hagaman, guys like that, we're going to work it out so they can return to their original team next season," SPHL commissioner Doug Price said. "For the teams who opted out of the 2020-21 season, players who were on those team's protected 13 lists (issued by each team over the 2020 summer) will have their rights go back to those original teams at the end of this coming season.
"As for other guys who signed with one of these opt-out teams, well, I wouldn't say it's a case-by-case basis, but we're going to work something out for them. We needed something in place to start this process.
"We still have a lot of work to do on this going forward."
The Rivermen almost literally brought back their entire team from their 33-8-5 unit that finished in first place as the 2019-20 season was canceled from COVID in early March.
Here's who was set to be on the ice for the ’20-21 Rivermen:
Center: Zach Nieminen, Alec Baer, Jordan Carvalho.
Left wing: Darren McCormick, Jordan Ernst, Robin Hoglund.
Right wing: Alec Hagaman, Cody Dion, Konner Haas, Regan Nagy, Ryan Cusin.
Defense: Paul Fregeau, Skyler Smutek, Jake Hamilton, Nick Neville, Brandon Rumble, Ben Oskroba, Brandon McMartin.
Goaltender: Eric Levine.
There were newcomers signed as well: defenseman Marc-Eric Bourque, winger JM Piotrowski, defenseman TJ Dockery, right wing Tommy Cardinal, center Bobby Sokol and center Zach White.
Among all these players, the Rivermen had the following on their protected 13: Nagy, Ernst, Haas, Baer, Carvalho, Hoglund, Dion, Nieminen, McMartin, Hamilton, Oskroba, Neville, Rumble.
It would have been a glorious season.
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.