BLOOMINGTON — Bloomington’s new entry in the Central Hockey League will be called the Blaze. Its head coach is not new at all, but in keeping with the nickname, brings plenty of competitive fire.
Jason Christie, who led the now-defunct Bloomington PrairieThunder to its first playoff berth last season, was introduced as the Blaze head coach and director of hockey operations Wednesday in a news conference at U.S. Cellular Coliseum.
Last season’s CHL Coach of the Year received lengthy applause from a large group of fans in the Bud Light Lounge.
“It’s been a little bit of a process, but I’m ready to get going,” Christie said. “There’s a lot to do, but I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Christie coached the PrairieThunder to a 37-22-7 regular-season record last year after being hired on Aug. 25. The win total was the best in the team’s five years and included a 20-10-3 mark at U.S. Cellular Coliseum.
He emerged last year from a pool of 70 candidates. This time, he was the frontrunner from the start for new owners Gary DelBuono of Boston and Sandy Hunnewell of New Jersey, according to General Manager Jim Riggs.
Negotiations have been ongoing since DelBuono and Hunnewell took over on June 16 and Christie signed a one-year contract Tuesday.
“It was cut and dried that he was the right guy,” Riggs said. “He’s such a popular guy in the community. While I know he’s a little behind the eight ball, he has a month more time (than last year). I think we’ll be fine.”
The former Peoria Rivermen player and head coach said he is eager to build on last season’s success. The Blaze recently protected six players from last year by making qualifying offers to them.
“It’s basically like we’re starting over, but we’re definitely up for the challenge,” Christie said. “You have to find the right guys who fit your mold. We want to make sure that we’re energized on the ice for the fans. At the end of the day, we’re entertainment and we have to make sure we’re working hard and playing for the fans.”
Many of those fans will be wearing Blaze gear but must wait to find out what it will look like. Riggs said DelBuono will be in Bloomington late next week and hopes to unveil the team’s logo and colors.
The nickname was chosen after negotiations for naming rights with two overseas companies and several Twin City businesses were unsuccessful. Riggs said Blaze emerged from options the team placed on Facebook.
“It started with a list of about 10 or 15 and it kept dwindling down,” Riggs said. “By the end of last week, it was clear that Blaze was the populace’s choice. We presented it to ownership and it became the winner.”
Neither DelBuono nor Hunnewell were in attendance Wednesday, but they issued a joint statement:
“We’re very excited to have Jason Christie on board for the Blaze inaugural season. His successful coaching record speaks for itself and we look for great things as the Bloomington Blaze competes in the CHL’s Turner Conference against some of the league’s top teams.
“We also hope the sports fans of the Bloomington-Normal area will embrace our new name. We think you’ll love the team’s new logo.”
The team’s website, which is still under construction, will be www.bloomingtonblaze.com.