BLOOMINGTON - Bloomington's professional hockey franchise finally may have the rivalry with Peoria it always wanted.
The Bloomington Blaze and Peoria Rivermen each have applied for membership in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“It makes perfect sense with the teams so close,” said Blaze team president David Holt. “It’s something Bloomington has never been able to enjoy.”
The applications followed Monday’s announcement that the Vancouver Canucks would not operate an American Hockey League franchise in Peoria. The Canucks bought the Rivermen from the St. Louis Blues last month.
In what Holt described as a “rapidly moving situation,” Central Illinois Arena Management president John Butler and general manager Bart Rogers, with support from former Rivermen owner Bruce Sauers, are working to form a company that will own both franchises. Both Butler and Rogers are former Rivermen executives.
“It’s a way to save hockey in Peoria and it fits perfectly with what Bloomington had been looking for,” said Butler.
The Blaze have been seeking a solution to a problematic absentee owner situation with New Jersey businesswoman Sandra Hunnewell and her ownership group, Hockey Sensations.
“It’s no secret we’ve been trying to find local ownership with Hockey Sensations going away,” Holt said. “As we tried to figure out the best way to move forward, we learned the Peoria building might become available. We had to formulate a plan and we lined up with Sauers.”
The SPHL’s Board of Governors is expected to act on the franchises’ membership applications at its next meeting later this week. Member franchises also share ownership of the Class A level league itself.
“Quite frankly, you have to run it like a business,” said Butler. “Their business model gives the owners more of a competitive edge in regards to viability.
“We want a long-term commitment to have hockey here for a long time and not have a revolving door with ownership.”
Bloomington’s original franchise, the PrairieThunder, initially planned to spend its first season in the ECHL along with the Rivermen. But after Peoria’s franchise jumped up to the Triple-A AHL, the PrairieThunder settled on joining the United Hockey League.
The SPHL had nine franchises last season operating in the southeastern states; the closest team to Central Illinois is the Mississippi RiverKings, who play in the Memphis, Tenn., suburb of Southaven, Miss.
However Holt said distances will not be an issue for the Central Illinois teams. In the Central Hockey League, the Blaze had to travel to Arizona and had only one opponent, Quad City, less than six hours away.
Butler said other Midwest markets could follow Bloomington and Peoria to the SPHL in future seasons.
The SPHL plays a 56-game regular season, compared to 66 over the same number of weeks in the CHL. This results in five less home games and likely fewer weekday games. Each series in the SPHL’s three-round playoffs is a best-of-three.
Holt said having Bloomington remain in the CHL with Peoria joining the league was not considered.
“The CHL was not an option,” said Holt. “There are just too many question marks in the Central Hockey League and we couldn’t take that chance.”