BLOOMINGTON — Jason Christie, a native of western Canada, felt like he came home a little when he signed last August to be the head coach of the Bloomington PrairieThunder.
The feeling appeared to be confirmed — at least on the surface — that he might be behind the home bench at U.S. Cellular Coliseum for a long time when he agreed just last month to become coach of the Bloomington Blaze for the fast-approaching Central Hockey League season.
But Christie pulled the rug out from under all of it on Tuesday by agreeing to become head coach of the Ontario Reign, an ECHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings in nearby Ontario, Calif.
“It all happened so fast,” Christie said. “It’s a great opportunity there, but it will be very hard to leave here.”
Christie, the CHL Coach of the Year last season, was offered and accepted the position late Monday night. He said he and his wife, Kelley, and their two sons, J.D., 10, and Jaxon, 5, will begin to make the transition to Southern California immediately.
He leaves after a widely successful run as a player and coach in Central Illinois. He won a championship with the Peoria Rivermen as a player/assistant coach during that organization’s ECHL days. As a head coach, his teams have had winning seasons in eight of nine years, compiling a 344-255-66 record between Peoria, Utah (ECHL) and Bloomington.
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Christie, 42, led the moribund PrairieThunder to their first winning season in 2010-11 and reached the playoffs for the first time.
“I still haven’t wrapped my arms around it yet,” Christie said. “Being in Peoria and this area for so long, it’s just … the people have been the best.”
Christie takes over a thriving ECHL team that plays in the 9,700-seat Citizens Business Bank Arena in suburban Los Angeles. Ontario led the ECHL in attendance last season with an average draw of 6,683 fans per home game.
“Obviously, that’s really intriguing,” Christie said. “But I believe that can be done here, too. I think the CHL knows it has a great market here.”
Christie said the benefit of working with an affiliated team is highly beneficial and rewarding.
“Nothing makes me happier than seeing situations like four of my guys who I had in Utah playing for the New York Islanders last year,” Christie said.
The Reign opening came about after Karl Taylor left to take an assistant coaching position with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. The Wolves recently became the Triple-A affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks.
Christie’s move caught the Blaze organization and U.S. Cellular Coliseum staff by surprise.
“Completely,” Blaze general manager Jim Riggs said. “We will certainly miss his professionalism. We wish him nothing but the best. I’ve worked with a lot of coaches over the years. He’s always worked at 100 percent.”
Riggs said he will completely shift his focus now to find a new coach.
The hiring process is still fresh in Riggs’ mind. He announced Christie as head coach last Aug. 25, just two weeks after Jarrod Skalde left for the head coaching job in Cincinnati, also an ECHL team.
“History is almost repeating itself from that standpoint,” Riggs said. “Jason was the right choice last year for a lot of reasons. We’ll be looking for someone who is personable in the community. We found out early that this community wants to attach itself to the coach.”
Like last year, Riggs said he plans 10 phone interviews and will narrow the field to three for live interviews.
The Blaze have just six players signed for the season that begins in October.
“The new coach will have a lot of work to do,” Riggs said.
Central Illinois Arena Management president John Butler and Christie have developed a strong friendship since their days together with the Rivermen. Butler hired Christie as head coach in 2000.
“I think we’re all sad and disappointed that he’s not going to be the head coach of the Bloomington Blaze,” Butler said. “But we understand he had an opportunity he couldn’t turn down. Jason is someone who is a very loyal person — I’m sure it was a difficult decision for him. But he’s hired to win championships and he has aspirations to get to the highest level.
“I know what we’ve lost; we’ve lost a tremendous coach.”
Reign president Justin Kemp termed it a “coup” to land Christie in such a short time frame.
“He is a proven winner who has been successful in this type of situation before and one we feel will be able to step right in and help us achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves,” Kemp said.