BLOOMINGTON — Growing concerns about the preparedness of the Bloomington Blaze to take the ice for their first Central Hockey League season later this month are leading to significant changes within ownership and management of the fledgling organization.
Co-owner Sandy Hunnewell has an agreement in place with partner Gary DelBuono to become majority owner of the team, and Brad Lund, who was a key player in starting successful minor-league hockey franchises in Oklahoma City and the Kansas City suburbs, has been appointed as the team’s lead executive.
Lund said Wednesday in an interview with The Pantagraph that Hunnewell will become majority owner in a transaction that is expected to be completed by the end of the week. CHL Commissioner Duane Lewis confirmed a deal is in place.
“This team has been undercapitalized from day one, which has been extremely unfair from upper management all the way down to the intern,” Lund said. “In the past eight days, those concerns have been taken care of by Sandy. She’s fully committed to make this a long-term successful business venture and not week to week as it has been.”
Hunnewell said she had no comment because the deal has not been finalized. DelBuono did not return voice mail and email messages left for him.
DelBuono initially introduced Lund two weeks ago as taking a consultant role with the team. Lund said Wednesday he will be “heavily involved” in the team’s operations at least through the end of the calendar year and likely until the end of the hockey season.
Lund, who also started up the CHL’s Missouri Mavericks, said he has been given “full authority” over the team’s operation, including a $2 million operating budget.
Lund holds the title of governor. Billy Vitale, Hunnewell’s son, has been named alternate governor.
Lund, 45, became lead executive of the Oklahoma City Blazers in 1992. During his 17-year run, the Blazers won CHL championships in 1996 and 2001 and frequently led all North American minor-league hockey teams in attendance.
He also was a special assistant to the Oklahoma City mayor’s office for the relocation of the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets to Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Beginning immediately, the Blaze will be run as a business and done consistent with upper-tier franchises,” Lund said. “This organization was as unprepared of a minor-league franchise as I’ve ever seen 30 days out from an opener.”
Lund said he plans various promotional nights during Blaze games, ranging from rally towels for fans to a car giveaway.
The season opener is Oct. 22 at U.S. Cellular Coliseum.
Central Illinois Arena Management President John Butler said the city-owned Coliseum will assist Lund’s efforts with administrative and sales support.
“Between me and (Coliseum General Manager) Bart (Rogers) we have more than 30 years in hockey,” Butler said. “We can help make decisions and fast-track some things that Blaze staff might not be able to do.”
Lewis visited the Blaze in August to help the out-of-town owners “straighten the learning curve.” The league recommended the team hire Lund.
“It hasn’t straightened as much as we’d like,” Lewis said. “Anytime you go into a market, you never really know how it’s going to go. But we know it can go better than it is.”
Messages left for Bloomington City Manager David Hales were not returned.