BLOOMINGTON - Three months before its six teams hit the ice, the newly resurrected International Hockey League continues to be the subject of whispers and innuendo regarding its long-term viability.
In the meantime, IHL officials have become master spin doctors in an attempt to woo new fans and retain their old ones as they change their business practices on and off the ice.
Ultimately, the fans will have the last word on the IHL's plan to return to a traditional Midwest bus league that will focus on geographical rivalries and rules changes that foster more physical play.
"We formed an independent league and we're making rules based on what's best for our fans and what's best for our business model rather than follow what the NHL does or other leagues do," IHL commissioner Paul Pickard said.
"We're trying to pioneer minor league professional hockey, and when you do something like that sometimes you have to compact the size of the league to get the proper players and ownership in place. It's going to be exciting and not only a good product on the ice but a good product in the boardroom as well. That's a recipe for success."
The main ingredients in the IHL's new recipe are the rules changes. The instigator penalty has been eliminated except during the final five minutes of a game. Game-day rosters will be increased from 18 players to 19, providing an opening for an extra enforcer.
Officials also will be using tighter standards in the neutral zone and a looser standard in the attacking zone to promote battles in the corners and in front of the net. In secondary altercations, players will receive a 10-minute misconduct penalty instead of a game misconduct.
Pickard conceded the new rules will result in more fighting, but he flatly denied the IHL is encouraging a return to the brawl fests and goon squads that many fans associate with the old IHL.
"You talk to anybody that has been in traditional markets and in nontraditional markets, and when do the fans stand up and cheer? It's not even when they see a goal. It's when they see a fight," Pickard said. "We are in no way, shape or form wanting to go back to the old IHL goon tactics. We want to see a combination of physical and skilled hockey.
"Say Bloomington has a five-goal lead on Fort Wayne, and Fort Wayne sends their tough guy out to beat up on your leading goal scorer. There are going to be serious consequences for that. I don't think we're promoting goon hockey. We're giving the fans what they've been asking for and pining for. Attendance has suffered because the games have been boring."
Despite several interview requests, Bloomington PrairieThunder owner Tony Lisman has deferred questions to team general manager Jerry McBurney, who defended the rules changes.
"It's more about physicality and not being concerned about checking a guy against the glass and being afraid you're going to get two minutes for doing that," McBurney said. "It will allow physical play not only in the corners but also in front of the net.
"The fans' comments about a lot of the leagues are the physical nature of the game has disappeared and it's become more of a finesse game. Old-time hockey was about physicality. You had to earn the goals. We want to eliminate the ticky-tacky penalties which will allow it to be a more physical brand of hockey."
Bloomington will be joined in the IHL by the five other holdovers from the now-disbanded United Hockey League: Fort Wayne, Ind., and the Michigan cities of Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Flint and Port Huron. The UHL's four other former members have joined different leagues.
The IHL will play a 76-game schedule with each team playing four opponents 15 times and the fifth 16 times. The top four teams will qualify for the playoffs.
"Other leagues play most of their games within their division, so the number of games we're going to play against common opponents is only one or two more than other leagues have," McBurney said. "We'll see some teams here seven times during the course of the year, but we feel that will provide stronger rivalries with those teams.
"The league format will create some player rivalries, too. What can happen is once you develop a rivalry with a team there could be an occasion where a couple of players just don't like each other. Fans look forward to those particular matchups because it's usually physical and players will go after each other."
The big question is whether fans will "go" for the IHL.
"The bottom line is fans buy tickets and pay the players' salaries, and they factor into our business," Pickard said. "We wanted to listen to them."
McBurney said the Thunder will begin announcing player signings for the upcoming season next week.
"You'll start seeing a flurry of signings now - not only new players but some of last year's holdovers," McBurney said. "(Coach) Derek (Booth) has spoken to a number of players not only from last year's roster but outside of last year's roster including the players from this week's (IHL) dispersal draft."
The Thunder selected 15 players in the dispersal draft. The team must make qualifying offers to those draftees by July 15 or they will become free agents.