BLOOMINGTON — Five ownership groups have attempted to put a winning hockey product on the ice at U.S. Cellular Coliseum, with little success at best.
Gary Gelinas believes a switch from the professional ranks to the junior-level United States Hockey League will accomplish that task at last.
Gelinas, the President of CSH International, Inc., said he's "really excited" after the league gave his group conditional approval for an expansion franchise in Bloomington for the 2014-15 season.
"It's a product I believe will be the best the market has ever seen," Gelinas said Tuesday afternoon after the league made the announcement. "We expect to have good support and build a quality franchise."
The USHL, considered the nation's top junior league, features players age 16-20 with most moving on to NCAA Division I programs. It's alumni include several current NHL players, including current Chicago Blackhawks Patrick Sharp, Brandon Bollig and Brandon Saad.
"We could buy a team at any level of pro hockey," said Gelinas. "We choose the USHL because of the stability and quality of the players. Having future NHL players was what we want to bring to the fans."
Brian Werger, USHL Director of Communications, said full approval is awaiting an ongoing review and finalization of documents.
"It's a matter of crossing the Ts and dotting the Is and I don't expect any issues," said Werger. "I can't imagine it taking more than about two weeks."
The USHL team will replace the Bloomington Thunder pro team, which recently completed its only season in the Southern Professional Hockey League with a last-place finish.
While the new team is expected to retain the Thunder nickname, Gelinas stressed the USHL franchise will be an entire new organization.
"(It has) no relationship with that team; it's a brand new entity that will do things the professional way," he said, adding that the SPHL club will go dormant.
Gelinas said current Thunder president David Holt will remain part of the franchise's six- to eight-member staff, although it's unclear in what capacity. He also said he knows who will make up the coaching staff and expects to have an announcement by the end of the month.
"I would think they've got their own people. I've not been told anything but I would think my days there are numbered," said current Thunder coach Greg Pankewicz. "It's sports; people come and people go."
Gelinas said CSH International has been involved in sports-related operations since 1977. It currently owns lower-level junior hockey teams in Everett, Wash., Amarillo, Texas, and Mason City, Iowa, in addition to a summer collegiate baseball team in Medford, Ore.
"We like success at the gate, success financially and to put on a great product because that's what the people come to pay for," he said.
"We didn't need another hockey team but we wanted to be in the USHL," he added. "Bloomington has all the right elements to be a successful market, with some stability."
Bloomington will boost the USHL to 18 teams for next season, joining Madison, Wis., as expansion franchises. Nine of the current USHL clubs are within 350 miles of Bloomington.
Werger said the league normally likes to award expansion teams more than a year ahead of their debuts.
"It's a unique situation and a unique oppportunity, considering this ownership and this market," he said. "We haven't made a habit of going into markets where teams already existed."
USHL rosters consist of 23 players, along with an affiliate list of potential reserves. The league caps the number of 20-year-olds any one team can have.
Players are allocated through a two-phase draft in May and teams also can hold open tryouts. The league does permit trades, although trades of high school-age players require approval from the player and his family.
"It's a great league and people will enjoy it. There's a good fan base and a good rink. Hopefully people will get on board," said Pankewicz.
"We want to bring to the community a stable ownership in a stable league with some of the best owners," added Gelinas. "That is the key, pro or USHL, and we feel the USHL and our groups brings that."