CEDAR RAPIDS — When Max Sasson got an invitation late Thursday night for a mandatory team-wide Zoom meeting, he sensed something was up, and it wasn’t good.
The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders forward and his teammates have communicated regularly that way with coaches and each other since the COVID-19 pandemic. But this particular Zoom was scheduled to take place in a matter of hours.
That portended trouble.
“It was, like, 10 o’clock at night for a 10 a.m. call,” Sasson said. “We usually have a couple of days to know about these things. I knew this had to be important.”
It was, as RoughRiders Coach/General Manager/President Mark Carlson told his boys late Friday morning their club was opting out of the 2020-21 United States Hockey League season. Severe damage to the ImOn Ice Arena incurred during the August derecho put into question its availability to the club, so the plug was pulled.
This was stunning news completely out of the blue for everyone.
“It has been a wild morning, for sure,” said Sasson, who was to return for his third season here and presumably would have been the team’s captain. “Coach was just at a loss for words ... Obviously there is so much emotion right now. On one side, I grew up so much my two years in C.R. I loved every part of the city, everything about it. Now I have to find a new team. I have been training all summer to play for C.R., getting on Zoom calls once a week with everyone, preparing for C.R. Now you’ve got to get your mind set now on getting prepped to play for wherever you go.”
RoughRiders players will be available to any other USHL club via an upcoming league dispersal draft. The Madison Capitols, owned by NHL defenseman Ryan Suter, also have decided not to play this season because county COVID-19 restrictions in Wisconsin prevent them from playing home games and hosting fans.
“Both clubs were resolute in their desire to take the ice, but ultimately these extenuating circumstances prevent them from playing this season,” said USHL President and Commissioner Tom Garrity. “We share the disappointment of RoughRiders and Capitols fans, and we look forward to welcoming these clubs back for the 2021-22 season.”
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“The property damage suffered in the entire Cedar Rapids area by its residents and businesses was significant,” Carlson said. “Our community will rebuild and recover from the storm. We have already begun planning our return for the USHL 2021-22 hockey season.”
Cedar Rapids and Madison will retain USHL player rights to all players currently under their respective umbrellas when they return to the ice for 2021-22.
“Absolutely not,” RoughRiders owner Tony Sdao said, emphatically, when asked if this was the end of the franchise. “The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders will return next season and have already started to work in conjunction with the city on upgrades to the facility that the RoughRiders would like to make. We are looking at enhancing the building, upgrading our locker room and the fan experience.
“We will continue to provide the best hockey team and entertainment for all of our fans. Also, we are very committed to youth hockey and the high school hockey program and are assisting them in continuing their operations this year.”
Sdao said the decision not to play came down to nothing more than timing. The USHL is seeking a Nov. 6 regular-season start and needed to cement team schedules and move forward.
A specific timeline for arena repairs has not been set, and the club certainly was looking at having to play the first half of this season on the road. That would have been like the inaugural 1999-2000 season, when the RoughRiders played the first two-plus months on the road awaiting the original construction of the arena.
Last month’s derecho blew a huge hole in the corner of the 21-year-old building on the Olympic ice sheet side but also did considerable overall destruction. Ultimately, it was determined it was in the best interests of everyone to not play. Sdao said he never contacted anyone at the new Xtream Arena in Coralville, which had its official ribbon cutting Thursday, with plans announced for a new professional hockey team to play there in 2021-22.
“We only have one home,” he said. “The franchise has only played at The Stable, and we felt that is where we want to play and are committed to playing.”
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He said he is confident about the hockey future in Cedar Rapids, despite the presence of a minor-league pro team just 20 miles down the road. The United States Hockey League is the highest level of junior hockey in the country, its players generally ranging from 16 to 20 years old.
The USHL had 55 players taken in the 2019 NHL Draft, including nine first-rounders.
“We believe our franchise is entrenched in the community, being in the community for 21 years,” Sdao said. “We are part of the community. So with that, we feel very comfortable in making additional investments in our franchise and continuing our tradition.”
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