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Sleeper Buses, Midget Wrestling, And Casinos: An Interview With Chris Bailer Of The Southern Professional Hockey League

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Chris Bailer is a minor league hockey player from Wetaskiwin, Alberta. He is known as a real defenseman’s defenseman, as he likes to play tough, yet within himself, and will do anything he can to help his team win.

After playing four years at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, Bailer signed with the Columbus Cottonmouths of the Southern Professional Hockey League. In his first full season with the Snakes he scored three goals and notched five assists in 52 games.

The 6’2″, 200 pound rearguard is no stranger to throwing ‘em either. Bailer racked up 98 penalty minutes last year, including 8 fighting majors.

The NHL’s southern expansion experiment is a divisive topic among hockey people. While exposure to new markets is not a bad thing, teams like Florida and Phoenix have had trouble filling their arenas and we won’t talk  about what happened in Atlanta.

Considering the mediocre results that the NHL has had in the south, one would be forgiven if they thought that a league comprised of teams solely located in smaller, almost exclusively southern markets wouldn’t have a chance in hell of surviving, but the SPHL has made it work. This will be the league’s 10th season.

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The SPHL will feature two new teams this year. The Peoria Rivermen, formerly of the AHL, and the Bloomington Thunder, who are joining from the CHL. The Illinois Expansion will put more pressure on the league’s logistical capabilities, but will also provide a chance to really make a niche for themselves in hockeydom.

Like Bailer, most of the players in the Southern League are Canadian, so moving to the Deep South is an entirely new ballgame for them.

Bailer’s Cottonmouths play at The Columbus Civic Center in Columbus, GA which is 100 miles south of Atlanta. They average just under 3,000 fans-per-game. The Huntsville Havoc, who finished second to the Pensacola Ice Flyers last year, boast the league’s best attendance.

Despite being a country away from their roots, these guys are your prototypical minor league athletes. They have a chance to keep playing, so they do. Whatever happens along the way is just gravy.

Bailer answered a few questions we had about the life of an SPHLer and then some.

If you could fight any player in the NHL who would it be?
  Dion Phaneuf.
What is your average gameday routine for Columbus?
When we play at home I wake up, cook  some eggs quick and make the 15 min drive to the rink.  I’ll grab a coffee at the rink and then we have about a 45 min pre-game skate.  After the skate I get treatment if I need it, otherwise I head to our favorite sub place for lunch.  After that me and my roommate head home, watch some TV and relax on the couch.  We’ll take about a 45 minute to an hour nap and then wake up and usually make chicken and pasta.  After that it’s time to shower and get dressed up in the suit and head to the rink.
If you were the commissioner of the NHL what would be the first thing you’d change?
 The first thing I’d do is get rid of the instigator rule.  Then I’d make the equipment smaller with less hard plastic.  Both would cut down on injuries, especially head injuries.  Getting hit with the elbow and shoulder pads today in the head is like hitting a wall.
What is your favorite city to play in (SPHL and any other ones)?
 My favorite place to play in the SPHL would be Columbus we have great fans and a nice rink…there’s nothing better than playing in front of our fans.  On the other hand if we’re talking off-ice I love going to Biloxi, Mississippi to play. It’s right on the Gulf Coast and we stay in a big casino/resort so it’s a nice place to wake up and see the water.
What is the biggest crowd you’ve ever played in front of at any level?
 In college when we played against the University of Minnesota. There was close to 10,000.
Who is the best player you’ve ever played against?
The best guy I played against and thought was unbelievable was Nick Bjugstad for Minnesota, he should be in the NHL for good.  The player that’s had probably the most success in the NHL I’ve played against is Cory Conacher who we played against while he was at Canisius.  In Junior I’d say Joe Colborne was the best I played against.
What is your stance on players who fight with visors?
For me it’s a bit different because we have to wear visors in the SPHL and sometimes fights will be spur of the moment and you get jumped so you’re fighting a guy with a visor. Ideally you’d rather not have one for your hands sake, so usually I’ll try to square up and take our helmets off.  It’s much easier on the knuckles.
What is the weirdest promotion you’ve seen in the SPHL?
 I’ve seen some weird ones in the SPHL for sure. In our rink we’ve had midget wresting and wiener dog races.  Those are pretty weird.  On the other hand we had some good ones, like having the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders at our game.
Is there anyone in the SPHL that you watch play and say damn, he could make it?
 Last year there was a goalie named Riley Gill in Louisiana who was pretty good. He went to the ECHL after the lockout and ended up being the starting goalie, won the championship and was named playoff MVP. He just signed in the AHL so that’s good for him and good for the reputation of the SPHL. 
Do people ever recognize you on the street?
 Yeah people recognize me and the rest of the guys on the street quite a bit. Whether it’s filling up with gas or at a restaurant… It’s a pretty cool feeling and we have a lot of support in the community.
Describe an average road trip for you guys:
Usually our road trips are short since most of our league is located in the south.  Last year we didn’t have many over night trips but with teams being added in Illinois this year that’ll change.  The average road game though we’ll pre-game skate in Columbus, jump on the bus and drive on avg probably 7 hrs to our destination.  About half-way we’ll stop to have pre-game meal.  Then right after the game we’ll jump back on the bus and get home in the early morning. We have quite a few home and homes on the weekend. It’s not too bad though because our bus is a sleeper bus so we each have our own bunk and usually can get a good nights sleep.
If you got invited to an NHL camp, what would be the first thing you’d do to get the coach’s attention?
One of the first things I’d do is stand up for a teammate in a scrimmage or a game. I like to think I’m a character player who plays gritty and tough, that is the best way to prove it.
Over or Underrated: The Tragically Hip 
Neither.. they get as much credit as they deserve.
What is your favorite hockey jersey?
I like the Capitals jerseys but I think it’d be wrong if I didn’t say my hometown team the Oilers so… the Oilers.
 
 
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