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Waning attendance, ice system issues cloud future of Rivermen playing at Peoria Civic Center

Peoria Rivermen players celebrate after scoring a goal against the Macon Mayhem in this season's home opener at the Peoria Civic Center.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Rivermen players celebrate after scoring a goal against the Macon Mayhem in this season's home opener at the Peoria Civic Center.

The Peoria Rivermen will play their first postseason hockey game at the Peoria Civic Center in nearly four years Friday night when they host the Pensacola Ice Flyers.

Following a 6-3 neutral site win in the best-of-three series opener Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala., the Rivermen need one victory this weekend to reach the second round of the Southern Professional Hockey League playoffs for the first time since that 2018 run to the Presidents’ Cup finals.

But wherever this playoff road leads for the Rivermen, the franchise's long-term relationship with the Civic Center beyond next season is unclear amid waning attendance and ongoing problems with the venue’s ice system.

Rivermen owner Bart Rogers said the team in February exercised its option on a one-year extension of its current lease with the Civic Center, through the 2022-23 season. He said there have not yet been any discussions seeking a new agreement after that.

“Hopefully in the near future, once we get through our season and get through the Civic Center's busy season, I'm sure those talks and discussions will move forward to discuss further new possibilities,” said Rogers.

After the team sat out the entire 2020-21 season amid issues surrounding COVID-19, Rogers said getting back on the ice for this SPHL campaign was tougher than expected.

“Definitely one of the most challenging seasons I've ever been involved in, in my 24-plus years of being involved in minor league hockey and minor league sports,” he said. “Just so many things at the start of the season, from immigration issues because of the pandemic, to housing issues with a shortage of apartments; we put our players up in apartments.

“The pandemic was one of the largest issues that we had to deal with, and testing and all that. I just send a note out before the last home game to our staff just to say how incredible it was that we were able to get through this pandemic with every challenge that's been thrown at us.”

The Rivermen reported an average crowd of 2,738 fans per game this season. The total attendance of 76,657 was down 12.7% from the season before COVID-19, despite having three more home dates. Rogers said many factors contribute to attendance, pointing to the pandemic limiting group ticket sales and the state’s mask mandate remaining in place through much of this past season.

“For us, attendance is challenged many times just by the schedule and the dates that we're given to be able to play,” he said. “So, a good year is if you have lots of good prime weekend dates, then your schedule and your attendance is going to be better. The dates where there might be lots of different events in the building that prohibit us from playing hockey, which we don't really have any other place to play in Peoria, then your attendance is challenged. I think this year, we had nine Sundays and then we had only four Saturdays from January through April, which is definitely not the norm and definitely challenges of those attendance figures.”

The Rivermen drew 109,307 fans in the 2017-18 season that saw them post the best record in the SPHL. But attendance dipped 5.6% the next season, then 14.9% the following year. Rogers said that doesn’t mean the team is failing.

“We’ve pretty much had been a viable business ever since we've come to the Southern Professional Hockey League,” he said. “It was not a viable business when it was in the American Hockey League, which is the reason why the St. Louis Blues pulled out (in 2013, when the parent NHL club relocated its minor-league affiliation to Utica, N.Y.). They were losing, I think it was reported, over $1.5 million a year on the team.

“We're in the right league; we play the right number of games that are most of the time played on the weekend dates. We were going in the right direction the last two or three years in regard to the financial side of things and then the pandemic hit.”

Peoria Rivermen players line up for the national anthem before the start of this season's home opener against the Macon Mayhem at the Peoria Civic Center.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Rivermen players line up for the national anthem before the start of this season's home opener against the Macon Mayhem at the Peoria Civic Center.

Rogers said one of the major obstacles to a long-term tenant agreement with the Civic Center is the venue’s aging and faltering ice plant, the system that makes the ice and keeps it frozen.

“It's 40 years old, as old as a building, and we've definitely had some challenges over the last three or four seasons that we've played,” he said. “It’s definitely on its last leg, but we've been able to make it through and hopefully we can make it through another year and then look to the future to see what that need will be moving forward from the Civic Center side.

“We don't own the building; we're a tenant. So it's their building and that will have to be something that will be determined by them, if they're going to replace that or upgrade it.”

Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar says part of the problem with the ice plant is that it uses a refrigerant called R-22 that has been deemed environmentally unsafe and is no longer produced. As the remaining supply diminishes, the cost increases.

“When we made the lease agreement with the team – it was for one year with a one-year team right of refusal, which they enacted the second year – the R-22 in particular when we first signed the contract, it was less than $14 a pound. It is now $44 a pound and climbing,” said Edgar, adding the Civic Center’s ice plant is leaking. “We have to maintain about 5,000 pounds in the system, and because of the age of the system, we don't know how much is in there at any given time.

“So we had an issue earlier this season (where) we had put what we felt was a substantial amount in and had it (full). We went to do the ice again, we had what they refer to as ‘soft ice’ and it impacted a game. So we know there's challenges and we've been very upfront with the team letting them know that this is kind of putting a Band-Aid on a flesh wound until we come to some resolution.”

Edgar said although the Civic Center is receiving $25 million in state funding for renovations, replacing the ice plant is not currently on their list of planned improvement projects because there are other higher-priority needs, like a new roof. He said it's unclear how the Civic Center will be able to maintain the ice surface beyond next season.

“I think we have one more year where we can stop-gap and then the R-22 is going to be non-existent. This is happening all over the country with this particular refrigerant,” said Edgar, noting venues across the country that have rinks but no hockey team losing ice show acts.

“The one thing about the system is it's more of a leak, and here's the challenge: it’s odorless, sightless. It's not like you can have a visual inspection and figure out what's going on, and because of the age of the system, the meters aren't there so it's not like it's telling you how many pounds are in the line. It's a challenge, and there is no easy solution.”

Although the Rivermen did play a 2019 home playoff game at the Owens Center in Lakeview Park, Rogers said team management hasn’t yet thought about where they would turn if they wanted – or needed – to find another venue.

“We haven't crossed that road yet. Playing at Owens Center is definitely not an option; it's not big enough for the operating requirements that it takes to operate a multimillion dollar franchise in minor league sports,” Rogers said, adding the park district venue is having similar ice system issues as the Civic Center. “So, that's not an option; there are no other options in Peoria.

“For us, we're just moving forward. We have another year left on our lease. We're going into our playoffs on a good stretch and excited for that. Once all that’s all said and done, we will start to figure out the next part of it.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.