Brady Smith

Defenseman Brady Smith watches for the puck during a Bloomington Thunder game this last season at the former U.S. Cellular Coliseum. The USHL franchise has rebranded itself as the Central Illinois Flying Aces for the upcoming season.

BLOOMINGTON — The Twin Cities’ entry in the United States Hockey League has a new identity: the Central Illinois Flying Aces.

“I think this symbolizes a fresh start, a new vision for our franchise,” chief operating officer Brendan Kelly said Thursday afternoon as the former Bloomington Thunder officially adopted their new name.

“We have been compared to or confused with previous versions of the Thunder, some with questionable histories that we want to somewhat disassociate with and identify ourselves clearly as this organization,” said Kelly.

First-year coach Mike Watt believes the new identity will boost the team’s reputation and benefit his tier-1 junior level amateur players who have aspirations of playing at the Division I and/or elite professional levels.

“I personally like it, based on the fact I have these young kids in this community and a lot people still think that our players are professional,” said Watt. “They haven’t been able to see the value of the talent that’s in our league because it’s all tied to past teams.”

The transformation caps a change-filled offseason for the fourth-year club. Watt replaced Dennis Williams as head coach and will have two new assistants on his bench for the Oct. 7 opener at Youngstown.

The home opener is scheduled for Oct. 13 at the recently renamed Grossinger Motors Arena, which will add a new Flying Aces store this season. Earlier this month, the City Council unanimously approved spending $187,871 for new dasher boards at the city-owned venue operated by VenuWorks.

“We’re working with VenuWorks and the city closely on numerous amounts of projects that are going on in the building,” said Kelly. “We’re working closely to insure that we put our players in the best, safest venue possible.

“There are some details we’re working on now to ensure that our venue is up to par and meets minimum league standards and requirements.”

While the rebranding drops “Bloomington” as locator, Kelly quickly dismissed any notion the club is laying the groundwork for relocation.

“There’s been this misconception that the team is leaving. We’re not leaving. We’re not going anywhere,” he said, stressing the choice to use “Central Illinois” was made to broaden the team’s reach.

“It’s just to expand our fan base beyond the Bloomington walls,” he said. “Our goal is to regionalize this team. … Now it’s Normal’s team and it’s everyone’s team in this region.

“Our home is Bloomington and we’re committed to this market. I think this also shows our commitment, that we’re staying here but we’re growing a fan base and our goal is to bring more people into Bloomington.”

Watt also believes having the state in the moniker will differentiate from other similarly-named Midwestern cities.

“There’s Bloomington, Ind., there’s Bloomington, Minn. There’s a lot of confusion,” he said. “We had one NHL team (scout) that flew into Bloomington, Ind., and didn’t know where the rink was. He had to get a rental car and drive over here.”

As for the nickname, Kelly believes it symbolizes the grit and rising talent of the athletes.

“It’s kind of the path our players are taking: upward and onward. It represents the skill, the speed and kind of the elite status of the players in this league,” he said.

“We worked with our ownership group (CSH International, Inc.) to select some names. … (CEO Bill) Yuill sent us a list of potential names that showed strength and represents us and the league. We kind of polled the staff, some friends and family, (and) overwhelmingly that was the one that came back as the pick.”

Yuill has added majority control of the Peoria Rivermen to CSH’s group of sports franchises, the SPHL team announced Thursday. Kelly said that acquisition will be mutually beneficial for the Aces and Rivermen.

“We felt it was a good opportunity to create some synergy with Peoria and with the entire region,” said Kelly. “It’s an opportunity to send our fans to Peoria and create one big hockey community and one large fan base for our players, the pro and the amateur side.

“I think (adding) Peoria is a strong point to make that Mr. Yuill and CSH is committed to this region. We really, truly believe in this region and know it’s a great hockey market.”

Kelly said the team will unveil its new logos and color scheme next week.

“It’s pretty much all ready to go (aside from) a couple last-minute details,” he said. “There will be a slight remainder of the previous identity within the uniform, not in the logo but one of the colors will remain.

“I can tell you it’s not the fluorescent green, which was very difficult to keep consistent.”

While the club stopped selling Thunder merchandise “a few months ago,” Kelly said the team plans to offer an olive branch of sorts to fans who already own the now out-of-date gear.

“I understand there’ll be people (thinking) ‘I just bought a jersey’ and we’re going to have a plan in place for that,” he said. “We’re going to be doing a jersey exchange program where fans who purchased a jersey during the 2016-17 season can exchange it or get a discount if they don’t want to.

“We’ll have special offers for fans to have merchandise they recently purchased. We’ll offer incentives and discounts and other opportunities.”

All of the team’s social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat — have been changed to incorporate the new name. The official website will relaunch under a new address once the full rebranding has been unveiled.

Kelly said restructured ticket pricing will have value in mind and that the team is expanding its promotional schedule and giveaways, including cross-promotional partnerships with the Rivermen.

“We’re just looking to tap new opportunities and grow the product,” he said. “We’re here to stay.”

Follow Joe Deacon on Twitter: @Pg_Deacon​

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Assistant Sports Editor

Assistant Sports Editor for The Pantagraph.

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