Q&A: Peoria Rivermen owner Bart Rogers eager for hockey season after long layoff
The Peoria Rivermen haven't played a hockey game in almost 19 months, with COVID-19 halting the 2019-20 season last March and the team opting not to participate last season.
That layoff ends in two weeks when the Rivermen open the Southern Professional Hockey League season on the road against the Vermillion County Bobcats in Danville. The home opener at Carver Arena follows a week later on Oct. 22 against the Macon Mayhem, as Peoria kicks off its 40th anniversary season.
Team owner Bart Rogers recently spoke with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon about returning from the extended absence and his expectations for the new season.
Joe Deacon: How anxious are you to just to have the team back on the ice?
Rogers: It's been a crazy 16 months-plus of a lot of unknowns, a lot of trials and tribulations to try and get to, you know, this season 2122 and we definitely are excited about the upcoming year and we've hired all our staff back are more staff than we've ever had and got a great promotional calendar and just a few weeks away, so we're excited about it.
Can you tell us a little bit about what's happened with the team since the last Rivermen game on March 8, 2020?
Rogers: We were in first place in our league, where we headed to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to play the team that we were tied in first place for, so it was going to be a great series. All the players traveled 15½ hours to Fayetteville, North Carolina, got there, spent a couple hours off the bus, and packed it back up and drove another 15 hours back. Ultimately we had to cancel the rest of the season.
Then we started to look into the following year. As every month went farther down the road It was pretty evident that there were going to be some teams in different states – Illinois being one of them; we had two teams, us and Quad Cities that probably weren't going to be able to be allowed to have fans in attendance. Without fans there's no – the revenues don't come behind it. So we ultimately had to make that decision, I think it was around the first part of October, that due to the state mandates we couldn’t move forward.
We sat out all last year, and then just started to plan for this year. We weren't even allowed into our offices until June 2, but we came in and we've hit the ground running.
So what is the outlook from a business standpoint going into this season after the long layoff?
Rogers: We've had a great success off the ice on the sales side, with season tickets being at 10-year record high, and our sponsorships are trending in the same way. If you would have told me that two or three months ago, I would have told you you're crazy. But it just shows the great support that we have for our franchise, and not only from our avid individual season-ticket holders but from the businesses.
That is somewhat surprising. Do you think the long absence is a factor in the season-ticket sales and people are just anxious to get back?
Rogers: I think that has a little bit to do with it, but also we've got great, experienced staff; the same staff is here that was here when we shut it down and we were having a great season. In our business, it's all about relationships and that's what gets you through the thick or thin. If you have that great relationship with a community partner and sponsor, then when they're going through tough times they make sure that you aren't cut out of that budget, and that was critical. I mean, we already know the attendance is not going to be what it was in 2019-20, so we're preparing for that financially. So to be able to have those two things already set in place and locked in is just tremendously exciting for us.
Yes, it seems attendance is down all across minor league sports. What are your expectations and how have you prepared for smaller crowds?
Rogers: If I wasn't concerned, I would be lying to you; I am concerned. I think there's the casual fan, the family that comes out to maybe one game a year or two games a year because of some promotion we might have going on, I think that that will be the probably the entity that we're going to feel the most effect from. But we went forward trying to do everything like we've always done for every year here.
Our promotional calendar is jam -packed with something every night. We've tried to keep our ticket prices in line. We've got a good schedule with some great weekend dates. And again, we brought back a staff (that’s) bigger and better than we've ever had, more experienced. So with that, I think we've made the commitment to not change a thing and hopefully get through it all, and hopefully as it gets further and further along in another month or two it's going to get better.
Still for indoor activities with you know thousands of people, there's definitely a concern. But I'm confident that Civic Center is going to have you know great guidelines and safety protocols. Our building is big – it's almost 11,000 seats for hockey and we average just under 4,000 a game, so there's plenty of room.
But I think we're all concerned, and you’ve definitely seen the summertime and baseball what what's happened there, not only in minor leagues but it's happened at the Major League level as well. I think we're all concerned about that, but then you look at college football and it seems like it's a little more packed than maybe baseball was, and maybe we're getting past that and we can all get back into a regular cycle.
What are some of the things the Rivermen have in store for this upcoming season? What will the fan experience be like?
Rogers: The things that people expect (when) going to a minor league sports event, we're going to have; that hasn't changed. Our gameday experience isn't going to change. We're going into our 40th anniversary, so we’ve got a lot of great 40-year promotions and celebrations of the past. We’re hoping to do some alumni events, when the travel restrictions and challenges there can go by the wayside.
One of the we've definitely done over the last 2-3 years is our theme nights and our especially jerseys with some really cool themes. We’re celebrating our three championships: 1984-85, ’90-91 and ’99-2000, so some really cool jerseys there. We did a promotion with our fans during the summertime to select the 40 fan-favorites from throughout the decades have the different levels of hockey here, and they picked out 40 great ones. There will be a collage of those 40 greatest players, action photos on the jerseys. That's one I'm looking forward to. Those are the fun things is to go back and look at the memories of the successes we've had here, and all the great players that have come through here.
From an on-ice standpoint, the team has played pretty well for several years. How important was it to bring back Coach Jean-Guy Trudel and maintain that level of success?
Rogers: Well, that was the number one challenge and issue; his contract was up in May, and we still had the unknown of what was going to happen. But we made that commitment to the hockey side as well. I mean, he's – you know, if you go back 10 years, I think we probably have the best record in all minor league sports at all levels on the ice, and that's definitely 100% attribution to him to make sure that he gets those credits and those accolades.
It's challenging because when you have a top team every year, you get tons of call-ups. We lead the league in call-ups, probably 25-30 call-ups a year. You're intertwining those parts and trying to make it successful on the ice. It's going to be challenging for him though, too. Every facet of our business is challenged, like mostly every business in America, whether that's delivery of merchandise, goods, promotional items to integration to getting our players across the (U.S.-Canada) border to have enough players to play.