BLOOMINGTON — U.S. Cellular Coliseum management has reached an agreement in principle that will displace the Bloomington PrairieThunder and make two East Coast investors the owners of a new Central Hockey League franchise in Bloomington.
Central Illinois Arena Management announced Thursday it has a letter of intent from insurance executive Gary DelBuono of Boston and pharmaceutical executive Sandra Hunnewell of New Jersey to place a new CHL franchise in the downtown arena for the 2011-12 season, which will begin in October.
The new lease is for three years. The deal is expected to be official by June 1.
“Our objective was to select an ownership group with substantial financial resources, and are excited about investing in the Bloomington area and are excited about the community,” CIAM President John Butler said.
The PrairieThunder’s five-year lease expired after the team was eliminated from the playoffs last month. Butler then opened the doors to “anyone interested in providing a professional hockey team for the Coliseum.”
That led to DelBuono, a 55-year-old senior vice president for Liberty Mutual, and Hunnewell, the chief executive officer of Tempus Medical Services.
DelBuono said the new franchise will have a new nickname and color scheme and will not be affiliated with the PrairieThunder.
“We will start from scratch,” DelBuono said. “This team is not tied to the PrairieThunder at all. I think that’s a good way to approach it — with a new look.”
DelBuono said no decisions have been made about staff. General Manager Jim Riggs and coach Jason Christie are under contract with the PrairieThunder.
Riggs said he hoped to meet with Twin City attorney Tim Leighton, who has been lead owner of the PrairieThunder for about three years, on Friday.
This will be DelBuono’s first venture into owning a professional sports franchise. Hunnewell has held an ownership stake in an All-American Hockey League team. She could not be reached for comment.
DelBuono said he has had interest in owning a minor-league hockey team for the past several years, and he and Hunnewell were introduced to each other in the past few months and decided to form a partnership.
Leighton said Thursday he was not aware that negotiations with the Coliseum had ended. Butler, meanwhile, has said contact with Leighton has been minimal since the lease expired.
The CHL was able to issue franchise rights for a new team in the Bloomington market because the International Hockey League was never legally dissolved, according to IHL Commissioner Dennis Hextall. That basically means teams such as the PrairieThunder, Fort Wayne and Quad City legally were IHL franchises playing in the CHL last season, Hextall said.
Riggs said season-ticket orders for next season that have been submitted by credit card will not be processed and checks will be returned.
Bloomington City Manager David Hales said the lease agreement with the new owners is expected to go before the Bloomington City Council at its meeting May 23. All leases with CIAM for the 7,500-seat Coliseum must be approved by the council.
Under CIAM’s 10-year contract with the city, the management group must have a hockey team as a tenant.
Hales said he is excited to see financially stable hockey ownership coming to the Coliseum. In March, the Internal Revenue Service filed a lien against the PrairieThunder for unpaid payroll taxes.
“The PrairieThunder deserves credit for helping CIAM go through this transformative period and keeping a hockey team at the Coliseum,” Hales said. “But now it is time to take hockey to the next level where we have owners that are committed to building a larger fan base and making the Bloomington team one of the champions in the league.”
M.K. Guetersloh contributed to this story.