SOURCES: Group eyes SPHL expansion to Danville, Illinois if Dashers’ lease is terminated

In a bombshell piece of news that Bus League Hockey was tipped off to Sunday afternoon, and other pieces fell into place over the course of the week, multiple independent sources have confirmed that a group aims to bring the Southern Professional Hockey League to Danville, Illinois and the David Palmer Arena if the arena board of directors’ votes to terminate the Danville Dashers’ current lease.

Should the team happen and get a lease, it would replace the Dashers, currently of the Federal Prospects Hockey League, who have played in the arena and the FPHL since 2011.

The termination of the Dashers’ has been discussed in recent weeks but has run into issues due to the COVID-19 outbreak shutting things down, while SPHL teams have been made aware of the possible Danville addition.

According to sources, at this time negotiations between the arena and prospective SPHL owners have not happened, but there is a mutual interest between the two parties, and a lease for this potential SPHL team is NOT in place at the moment.

The news started Sunday with an anonymous tip that the arena’s directors were in the process of working to terminate the Dashers’ lease.

Shortly after receiving the tip about the arena lease termination, WCIA, a local TV station covering central Illinois, did in fact post a story confirming all the things our source told us.

But a big wrench that has slowed down the process of a potential vote on the lease, is the arena being required to hold a public hearing about the lease or vote, and give the public two days notice that it is happening. Essentially, the arena can’t just hold a vote behind closed doors and ram through a new team or terminate a current team’s lease without the public being allowed to have their say about saving the Dashers. But, being unable to do that due to the on-going COVID-19 concerns, which have canceled pretty much all public gatherings across the country, the question becomes: How does one hold a public hearing if nobody can go in public places? Can the public email in their questions and concerns? Do you hold it live on Facebook and let people ask questions in the comments? Do you fire up Zoom and a select 10-15 members of the public get to be a part and as questions? There’s really not a good solution.

Sources have also confirmed to BLH that all of the SPHL’s current 10 teams have stated they plan to be back whenever hockey returns, but it is still a question with it unknown how long COVID-19 will keep things shut down, and how a lengthy delay in hockey activities may affect the current teams. So should the Dashers’ lease be terminated and the group continue with its efforts, Danville could become the SPHL’s 11th team.

The Dashers front office, and fans in Danville, who are aware of the possibility of an SPHL team coming to the city, have not gone quietly in this fight for the arena. On Tuesday, a Facebook page was started in an effort to save the team and the ice in Palmer Arena, quickly growing to over 700 members, and seeing a number of heated posts, including some from current Dashers GM, Diane Short, and numerous longtime fans of the team.

But back to the hockey side of things.

From a geography standpoint, Danville is a perfect fit for the SPHL to have a fourth team in it’s northern region, with Peoria less than two hours away, Evansville three hours away, and Quad City just over three hours away. Giving each of those teams another rival and regional travel partner would certainly cut down on travel costs.

It also raises the likelihood of the SPHL adding a 12th team this off-season, because with 11 teams, it’s very likely, if not probably, that a 12 team will have to be on the way to even out the schedules, this of course assumes that all the current teams do come back. Sources close to the situation say that the addition of a 12th team could result in “regions” that would only be used for travel and regular season purposes, with it currently unknown if it would affect playoff positioning or match-ups at all.

While the potential expansion team could be a new rival for three of the SPHL’s current teams sounds exciting, this potential new team does raise a TON of questions about how it would survive long-term.

Immediately, the thought goes to how Palmer Arena qualifies as an SPHL barn, which currently seats just 2,350 for hockey, plus around another 350 in standing room, for a total of just 2,700 maximum, well below the rumored requirement of 4,000 seats needed to join the SPHL.

Or to put the arena’s size another way: if this new SPHL Danville team sold out every game at 2,750 including standing room, they would be 7th out of 11 teams in the league. Needless to say, it’s not a big or new rink.

While the arena is a beloved old barn, it is likely that it would need a number of updates for the fall. BLH also learned this week that the arena has recently received a large sum of money specifically for updates to the arena, separate from what the new team owners plan to invest, with most of that money going to a new ice making plant that should be ready to go in October.

In addition, sources close to the situation say the new team’s owners are reportedly eyeing other uses for the ice in the arena outside the SPHL team, including plans to revive Danville’s youth hockey program, and an expanded role in the community, schools, and local business scene.

The other big question mark comes in terms of population and a potential fanbase for this new team. The Danville metro area has around 45,000 people in it, which would make it the smallest in the SPHL by a large number, but population does grow as the area expands, with more than 200,000 people living with 50 miles of the rink. Both of those marks would be among the smallest in the SPHL, a league whose current 10 teams average around 130,000 people per town, not just the metro area, and are also generally the largest city in metro areas that have hundreds of thousand of people in them, not a metro area of roughly, 45,000.

If it happens and becomes official, the loss of Danville would be a MASSIVE blow to the FPHL, which is set to expand to nearby Bloomington, Illinois this season, but even that is in doubt after some comments by FPHL Commissioner Don Kirnan roughly a week ago. Bloomington even hosted two neutral site games this past season. Not only would the Bloomington-Danville rivalry be dead before it even started, but it also would eliminate a nearby-ish team for Port Huron and Mentor as well, and would throw into flux the league’s current East-West divisional alignment. The potential loss of Danville would drop the West to five teams, assuming Bloomington still joins the league, but could dip to four if Battle Creek folds, relocates to an eastern market, or merges with Danville, since both are properties owned by Barry Soskin.

Attendance wise, Danville has been decent in the FPHL, starting off as low as 465 fans per night in their first season, topping 1100 twice in franchise history, and playing this past season in front of an average of 1034 per game.

Palmer Arena has also been host to higher level hockey before, with the original Dashers of the CnHL playing from 1981 to 1986, before being replaced by the Danville Fighting Saints of the AAHL from 86 to 89. In 1994 junior hockey took over the market, with the Danville Wings playing until 2003, followed by the USHL Wings for a season. The Danville Pounders played one season in 2006-07, and the arena was without a hockey tenant until the FPHL Dashers took the ice in 2011.

We’ll have more on this situation as it develops and we learn more.

3 thoughts on “SOURCES: Group eyes SPHL expansion to Danville, Illinois if Dashers’ lease is terminated

  1. I believe your number is off regarding top attendance. Should be 2100? I know I’ve been to games in Danville that topped 2000. And you can’t have an average of 1034 if your top is 1100!

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  2. I don’t know if Danville could support a team in the SPHL, even if they did suddenly start filling the building. I think Bloomington would be much better off going to the SPHL…better league, higher level of play and more closer geographic rivals.

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  3. Why isn’t the SPHL looking at former markets like Lafayette, LA to go back into, instead of Danville. What about Louisville, KY or Jackson, MS, which have larger population bases?

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