With the Rivermen: Peoria players sign with SPHL rivals, plus AHL and ECHL plans

Dave Eminian
Rivermen veteran winger Cody Dion watches the puck deflect over the net during an SPHL game at Carver Arena.

PEORIA — One by one, the Peoria Rivermen are scattering around the remaining five active teams in the SPHL.

Reigning SPHL Defenseman of the Year Nick Neville became the second Peoria Rivermen player to sign with the Pensacola Ice Flyers on Friday. He joins Peoria captain Alec Hagaman, who indicated earlier this month more Rivermen players would be headed there.

Big Rivermen veteran winger Cody Dion found a new home this week, too, signing with the Birmingham Bulls. Dion has played 155 games — including 20 in the playoffs — in parts of four seasons with the Rivermen.

Rivermen goaltender Jeremy Brodeur, who left Peoria for Europe last season, has returned to the U.S. and signed with Knoxville.

Neville scored six goals and 29 assists with a plus-21 rating in 46 games for the Rivermen last season.

"(Pensacola) coach Rod Aldoff always puts together a championship caliber team and I am looking forward to contributing to that this season," said Neville in a statement from the Flyers. "COVID-19 has taken a lot away from everyone but it also has made me appreciate the game of hockey and how I have missed it.

"I am ready to get on the ice, win and play in front of Pensacola’s great fans."

The Rivermen, under an agreement the SPHL arranged for the five teams that opted out of the season, will retain rights to Neville, Dion and Hagaman for the 2021-22 season.

VACANCY: The Rivermen were 33-8-5 and in a first-place tie with an equally terrific Fayetteville team when the rest of the 2019-20 season was canceled in early March.

The two powerhouses never played each other.

Peoria would have been the No. 1 seed on tiebreakers (33 wins to Fayetteville's 31) and fans spent the summer wondering if the league would declare a champion.

Rivermen head coach Jean-Guy Trudel was adamant he didn't want a championship that way, and it's fairly certain Fayetteville didn't, either.

So the league has made a decision.

"We had two great teams tied in points at the top of the standings," SPHL commissioner Doug Price said. "It just didn't feel right to pick a champion from between them in these circumstances.

"So no, our ownership decided we won't have a champion for the 2019-20 season. It will remain vacant."

PONY UP: The Peoria Mustangs have gotten their 2020-21 season under way in the Tier III junior NA3HL.

They will play just four of their first 12 games at Owens Center — presumably with no spectators, as Illinois presently allows only 50 people at an indoor event, and that includes players, coaches, officials, game operations people.

The Mustangs will play 10 straight games between Dec. 11 and Jan. 16 at Owens Center.

Why can the Mustangs play and the SPHL's Rivermen can not?

It's a completely different operating budget. The pro franchise Rivermen have to cover a $1.6 million budget, and opted out of the season because they can't cover expenses without spectators to generate revenue.

In Tier III junior hockey, the Mustangs players are in a pay-to-play format. Literally, each player pays somewhere between $10,000 or more to cover costs of the team operation.

If Illinois ever gets its boot off the necks of sports teams and allows spectators to attend games, keep the Mustangs in mind. They will be the highest level of live hockey being played in central Illinois this year and deserve support.

TALK NET: ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin, in an ESPN story this week on the class-AA league's decision to play in 2020-21:

"I mean, facts are at a premium these days, but what's become evident to me is if there was a reasonable and responsible way to return to play in 2020-21, our ownership wanted to do it, the players certainly want to get back to playing, and the fans have shown their desire to have ECHL hockey in their market. Is COVID gone? Absolutely not. Is it something we're going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future? Absolutely. But the more you work through it, the more you learn. I think you can reasonably and responsibly return to play."

AHL president Scott Howson, in an ESPN interview, on his league facing the same COVID issues other leagues are dealing with:

"Right now, we have seven of our markets that can host, to varying degrees, people in the stands. We're hoping that's going to improve. But ticket sales are the largest economic driver in our world.

"Just having some capacity for fans in the building is a big, big issue for us. If we don't have that, then that's going to limit some teams on their desire and ability to play."

RIVER READINGS: The AHL, which initially targeted a Dec. 4 start for its 2020-21 season, announced this week it has delayed that launch to Feb. 5. Several U.S.-based AHL teams have NHL parent clubs in Canada. The border remains closed because of COVID. So it's possible the AHL might move some of those farm clubs to Canada for the season. ... The ECHL's Atlanta and Norfolk have already opted out of the 2020-21 season. Thirteen teams will start a 72-game schedule on Dec. 11. Then the other 11 active teams will start a 62-game season on Jan. 15. That group is buying time because of COVID restrictions, trying to avoid opting out. The playoff seeding in the spring will likely be based on win percentage. Schedules will be fluid, too, with the inevitability of positive COVID tests. ... The 2020-21 season is going to be tough for goaltending jobs in the SPHL with only five teams operating and just a 42-game format. With such a short schedule, a No. 2 goaltender on an SPHL team might only see five games all season. ... To wit: Former Rivermen and Quad City veteran goaltender Peter Di Salvo has signed with Danbury in the low-A FPHL. ... The Rivermen have a merchandise deal launched. It includes two Rivermen facemasks and a team stocking cap for $29. You can order through the team site now. ... I'm working on an all-decade Rivermen team for the franchise's SPHL era, and we'll have that soon. To keep Rivermen fans from rusting out during the season, I plan to present a weekly look back at a memorable game, and we'll talk to people that played in it. If you have suggestions for a memorable game, or ideas for things you'd like us to put together, hit me at the email below.

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 deminian@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.

Peoria´s Nick Neville (25) battles for the puck with Huntsville Tyler Piacentini during their game Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019 at Carver Arena.