BLOOMINGTON — The Bloomington Thunder hockey team will still exist next season, team president David Holt said Tuesday.
“There will be hockey and it will be the Thunder,” said Holt. “Things are moving very quickly and we're excited about the direction we're taking.”
That direction may point to the Thunder's departure from the Southern Professional Hockey League, separating their one-season rivalry with the Peoria Rivermen.
The Thunder and Rivermen were jointly owned by a group that included Holt, Central Illinois Arena Management President John Butler and CIAM General Manager Bart Rogers.
Bloomington concluded its SPHL season in last place with a 20-33-3 record while Peoria placed third and will open the President's Cup playoffs Wednesday against Columbus at the Peoria Civic Center.
While nothing has been finalized, one possibility could see the Thunder transform from a professional team to a member of the nation's top junior league, the United States Hockey League.
“There has been interest expressed in the market and it is being reviewed by the league,” said USHL Director of Communications Brian Werger. “We're always looking to explore opportunities and Bloomington is one the league has looked at in the past.”
The USHL operated a 16-team circuit of clubs in nine Midwest states, with an expansion team slated for Madison, Wis., next season. Players range from age 16-20, with most moving on to NCAA Division I programs. The league had 32 players selected in last year's National Hockey League draft.
Switching the city-owned U.S. Cellular Coliseum's hockey tenant from a pro league to a junior level could impact CIAM's contract to operate the arena. The contract specifies the company must secure professional sports franchises with a total of about 50 home games a year.
The arena also serves as home to the Bloomington Edge indoor football team and the Bloomington Flex basketball team.
“CIAM is charged with providing several sports teams as part of their contract with the city and unfortunately we’ve had a history of significant turnover in ownership of teams, including that of hockey,” said City Manager David Hales.
Hales confirmed Butler and Rogers are no longer involved in ownership of the Thunder.
“The new arrangement will return them to focusing primarily on operation and management of the Coliseum and allow new ownership to take over the hockey team,” said Hales.
A post on the Thunder's Facebook page is promoting season ticket packages for the 2014-15 season.