Augusta’s hockey fans might see a better product on the ice this season thanks to the NHL lockout.
While the top of the hockey world waits for news on the future of the NHL season, minor league hockey will return to Augusta in a little more than six weeks.
The Southern Professional Hockey League will open its ninth season and the Augusta RiverHawks their third in October. While the league and team won’t directly benefit or fall victim to the uncertainty created by the player lockout that might jeopardize the upcoming NHL season, SPHL president Jim Combs said it’s one of the factors that could bring a higher quality of play to the league.
“Initially I would have said no, there won’t be an effect,” Combs said. “But after looking at what these (NHL) teams want to do, sending so many guys down to their affiliates, I think it’s going to have an effect on us.”
Though SPHL teams don’t officially align themselves with any specific NHL teams, RiverHawks first-year coach Rob Miller said Augusta could see a trickle-down effect as players turn to the American Hockey League and lower leagues for ice time.
“There are a lot of guys out there that just want to play,” he said. “Some of the guys that aren’t playing in the NHL may go to the AHL and then those guys may go to the ECHL or us. There will be some players, especially rookies, that are Double-A talent that might end up at this level.”
The results, combined with continued instability within the rival Central Hockey League, could produce an elevation in the skill level within the SPHL as talented rising stars look for a place to play.
“The play in our league will also go up because of the amount of teams that left the CHL,” Combs said. “You’re definitely going to see a bump in the level of play.”
Miller has spent the summer trying to build a training camp roster with strong core of players. The bulk of the signings will come as training camps at higher levels wrap up over the next month.
The RiverHawks are scheduled to hit the ice for preseason workouts starting Oct. 15 with the home opener scheduled for Nov. 2.
“Everybody has a job to do on the team, and I’m just looking for guys that will fit,” Miller said.
The RiverHawks have already announced that several players will return from last year’s Coffey Cup-winning team.
Forwards Matt Auffrey and Kyle Watson will be with the team when training camp opens along with defensemen Drew Baker, Curtis Megginson and Jason Price.
Reach Billy Byler at (706) 823-3216