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The Southern Professional Hockey League released its 2013-14 schedule on Aug. 5.
The nine-team league consists of teams in Augusta, Ga.; Columbus, Ga.; Fayetteville; Huntsville, Ala.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Lafayette, La.; Southaven, Miss.; Biloxi, Miss.; and Pensacola, Fla.
HUNTERSVILLE – Jim Combs’ passion for minor-league hockey has never waned.
His lifetime of expertise in the sport landed him a job as commissioner of the Southern Professional Hockey League in 2007, but Combs, then living in Sedona, Ariz., had to move back East.
He moved the SPHL’s league offices to Charlotte in 2009. He found a better fit in Huntersville two years later.
The nearest SPHL team is roughly three hours away in Fayetteville, which is also the only franchise in the state.
Combs isn’t lost on that fact.
Part of the draw in having the 10-year-old hockey league base its operations in Huntersville, he said, was the lack of proximity to one of the SPHL’s 10 teams.
“You don’t want to have your league offices in the same city as a team, because other teams are going to think the local team gets some sort of preferential treatment,” he said. “It would be like the NFL basing its offices in the same place as the Carolina Panthers. Other teams would complain.”
No one’s complained about traveling to Huntersville Business Park, where Combs and Vice President Doug Price conduct league business, coordinate schedules and lead the league’s marketing meetings.
Combs and Price, a Huntersville resident, spent years working for the East Coast Hockey League, regarded as one of the sport’s premier minor-league operations.
Combs was a referee. Price was the ECHL’s information director from 1991 to 2001, the first six years of which were spent at its then-base city of Charlotte.
The lessons the pair learned have served them well in their new capacities.
Combs said he’s developed relationships with NASCAR teams and personalities to gain more sponsorship dollars for the league, which has teams in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Illinois.
Price’s involvement with the ECHL began when he was hired as the league’s first full-time employee.
He saw the ECHL, which once included the Charlotte Checkers – no relation to the American Hockey League team – grow into a highly regarded league from humble beginnings.
“We’re kind of at the level where the ECHL was back then,” Price said. “We’re getting more marketing and respect. There was a time when players didn’t want to report to an ECHL team. Now they’re a good destination.”
The battle to keep minor-league sports organizations afloat isn't easy, but the SPHL – similar to Class-A professional baseball – has gained credibility since 2011.
It’s also gained teams. Combs laughed at the notion that two Illinois expansion teams, based in Bloomington and Peoria, aren’t quite in the South.
“We felt as a league that they had sound ownership and a good plan, so we added them to our league,” Combs said.
Don’t expect a team in Charlotte or Lake Norman anytime soon, he cautioned.
The league says it needs a suitable hockey arena – roughly 5,000 seats and built with ice hockey in mind – in the area before local expansion could happen.
As of now, Combs said, he’s just happy the league is succeeding.
“I’ll run into someone in town who asks, ‘What do you do?’” Price said. “When I say I run a hockey league, the response is always, ‘That’s cool!’ We’re glad it’s worked out here."