Fans filed into the rink for a minor league hockey game, vendors sold concessions and the visiting team took the ice for warmups. The national anthem played, and officials were ready to drop the puck.
One problem: The home team did not show up.
This bizarre scene unfolded over the weekend at what was supposed to be a Southern Professional Hockey League game in Danville, Illinois, between the visiting Quad City Storm and host Vermilion County Bobcats. After a 2-minute delay of game penalty and 5-minute waiting period, the game was declared a forfeit. The visitors tried to give fans their money’s worth by inviting them onto the ice for what was supposed to be a postgame group skate before making the three-hour drive home.
“It was a very weird weekend,” Quad City president Brian Rothenberger said. “Certainly one of the most bizarre (things) I’ve seen.”
There are now concerns last-place Vermilion County, which has lost 77 of 86 games in its two years of existence, will fold midseason. That would reduce the number of teams from 11 to 10 in the SPHL, which is a rung below the ECHL in the North American hockey hierarchy, after the NHL and American Hockey League.
Multiple messages seeking details, clarification and comment on the situation Sunday and moving forward sent to the SPHL, the team and owner Ellen Tully were not returned.
The only public announcement read: “The Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) on Sunday announced the Quad City at Vermilion County game scheduled for Sunday, February 5 has been declared a forfeit in favor of Quad City pursuant to Rule 73.3 of the SPHL Rule Book.”
If this is the end for the latest attempt at minor professional hockey in the Eastern Illinois city of just under 30,000 located 93 miles (150 kilometers) from Indianapolis, the Bobcats went out in viral fashion. Videos showing the surreal development of one team standing on one half of the rink compared to the empty bench, net and ice on the other side made their way on to social media with fans decrying the embarrassment of the situation.
Chuck Sergent, a hockey lifer in Danville who said he worked as vice president and head of marketing and public relations for Vermilion County from August-December, “was not surprised that it happened at all.” He had known of deteriorating conditions within the team, including concerns over inadequate medical personnel on site for games, and figured a problem was imminent when the Bobcats were replaced as the opponent for road games at Quad City on Friday and Saturday.
Rothenberger and owner John Dawson accompanied players and coaches on this trip because they knew the circumstances might be a little bit strange. Rothenberger said the league told the Storm to go about their regular business and take the ice as usual because that was standard procedure.
Fans who weren’t paying close attention didn’t know what was coming. Sergent had a good idea, and he wanted to be at David S. Palmer Arena to talk to season-ticket holders he brought in during his stint with the club.
“It hurt me so bad to watch the arena, which was not their fault, keep selling tickets to a game that they had a gut feeling and knowing darn well it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “It’s sad.”
Vermilion County’s coach did not show up, there was no athletic trainer on site and Sergent said only captain Adam Eby was prepared to take the ice.
While the official attendance was listed at 0, fans who paid $7-13 per ticket for a game that never happened still got to step onto the ice to skate with visiting players from Quad City who stuck around to provide some entertainment.
“That is really what minor pro sports is all about,” Rothenberger said, adding the team stopped for McDonalds and “some cold beverages” for the ride home. “They were excited to be able to do it. I think it meant a lot to the fans that were there, especially some of the younger kids looking forward to that skate. They still got to do it and hope that can kind of keep that hockey interest up and see if they can move forward getting things, a little more stability, I guess, there in Vermilion County moving forward.”
Sergent, who was involved with previous teams in Danville — the Dashers of the Federal Prospects Hockey League and Wings of the North American Hockey League — expects Vermillion County “won’t play another game.
“They’re absolutely done,” he said. “After what happened (Sunday) and what they did to the fan base, they’re done.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, tickets were still on sale online for the team’s remaining home and road games.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.