Peoria and Bloomington head south

 Rivermen

PEORIA, Ill. – Excitement! Bottom line.

Those are the two big things keying a major tremor in the minor league hockey landscape as the Peoria Rivermen and Bloomington Blaze make the jump to the SPHL.

John Butler and Bart Rodgers currently own Central Illinois Arena Management. CIAM is the company that runs the very successful U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington, home of the Blaze. They will own both the Bloomington and Peoria SPHL teams. Both men are past chief executives of the Peoria Rivermen ECHL operation, Butler before Rodgers.

The Rivermen, most recently of the AHL, and the Blaze, coming from the CHL, will join what is set to become a 10-team SPHL.

“We were successful when we went to the ECHL (in Peoria) in ’96 (from the original IHL),” Rodgers said in an interview. ”It’s all about affordable family fun and exciting hockey.  This is going to be exciting and fun. There are going to be some old Rivermen traditions brought back over the next few years. There will be special promotions and exclusive benefits for the season ticket holders – things that seemed to get lost over the past few years.”

The Blaze have taken a different path, starting out as the PrairieThunder in the now defunct UHL, moving to the now defunct second incarnation of the IHL and, most recently, of the currently very shaky CHL. During their run in the CHL, they changed their name once and traded out absentee or inexperienced ownership groups seasonally.

“In Bloomington, we started this process in January.” Rodgers said. “We are obligated to have professional hockey in Bloomington and we were worried about next season. We needed a business model that would allow us to break even. We looked at the AHL, the ECHL and the SPHL and we kept coming back to the SPHL.”

So if the idea originated in Bloomington, how did Peoria get into this mix?

“As soon as we learned about the situation with the St. Louis selling the Peoria team – well, we’d already done the legwork for seeking out the right fit for our market,” Rodgers said. “We contacted the Peoria Civic Center and let them know that if Vancouver wasn’t interested in icing a team in Peoria, we would be. After March 30, things kept getting hotter and hotter for us in Peoria and when Vancouver finally said no, we were ready.”

Yes, the “S” in SPHL stands for Southern. The league’s footprint has traditionally stuck to the Gulf Coast states to the south and the eastern and northern edges of old Dixie. Rodgers does not believe that stretching the footprint will be a problem.

“Yes, there will be some long road trips. Bloomington has had some long trips the pastBlaze few years – Arizona, Colorado and others. In the ECHL, it seemed every road trip was a long one for the Rivermen,” Rodgers said. “Each league has long road trips and associated travel expenses. However, with Peoria and Bloomington close, we feel that will help mitigate some of that.”

Rodgers doesn’t believe Peoria and Bloomington will be alone in the Midwest for very long, though.

“Peoria and Bloomington will probably be the only additions this year for the SPHL (because) Vancouver just took too long to decide,” he said. “We might have snagged another city if the decision had been made a few weeks earlier. Next year, though, I expect a 4-6 team Midwest division in the SPHL.”

So what about the SPHL made it so attractive?

“I like the SPHL business model. I have been working in minor league hockey for 23 years. I like how they operate. I like their playoffs. I like their schedule,” Rodgers said. “I mean, they don’t start their season until after High School football is over. That means less competition at the beginning of the season. Running a 56-game schedule with the playoffs over at a reasonable time – the casual fans doesn’t go to a hockey game in late May or June.”

Although Rodgers would not be specific about ticket prices at this time (more information will be revealed at a press conference next week), he did say season tickets could be as much as $200 plus cheaper when compared to the final season of AHL Rivermen hockey. Additionally, there will be good prices for rivalry packages for visiting fans at both arenas.

A well-place local marketing professional with in-depth hockey knowledge, who wished to remain anonymous, speculates that 2500 fans per game with a $13 ticket price would mean they would need a “very do-able” $400,000 in sponsorship revenue to meet the SPHL $1.2 million operating budget.

Rodgers was not as specific, but his numbers fall well within that range.

“I would guess 2500-3000 fans, average, for a break even,” he said.

The Bloomington and Peoria teams will have a common owner but separate management units. Each franchise will operate separately from the other while being “brothers”.

”As an ownership group, we will be looking at expenses.” Rodgers said, “We are local owners for both cities. One big difference is that (former Rivermen owner) Bruce Saurs will be exclusive to Peoria, serving as an advisor and ambassador. Peoria will manage their team from Peoria. Bloomington will manage their own team. We expect a good rivalry both on and off the ice.”

Reaction to this news has been very positive in Peoria, where the city faced the prospect of no professional hockey for the first time in 31 years.

“Yes! I am excited about this!” Lee Lewis, a former season ticket holder, said when he heard the news. “I can afford tickets again. I like hockey but it has to be affordable. We only attended maybe one game a year when they were in the AHL…and it just wasn’t the same.”

Even former players have chirped in. Doug Bonner knows both ends of a rivalry between the Louisiana Ice Gators and Peoria Rivermen. It started when he was a rookie goaltender for ECHL Peoria during an incredibly intense playoff series against the Ice Gators. The next two years he found himself playing in the Cajundome. Bonner is a current resident of Louisiana and the Ice Gators are currently members of the SPHL.

“Peoria is a great hockey town,” Bonner said. “The SPHL has some of the best fans in minor league hockey. Back in the day, there was no better long-distance rivalry than the Ice Gators and the Rivermen. That rivalry is just itching to re-ignite, now.”

So, excitement, affordability and some darn good rivalries are in store for Peoria and Bloomington this coming winter.

Ticket prices and other details will be discussed at a press conference in coming days. Contact for the office in Peoria will remain – same place, same phone number – (309)676-1040. Same for the Blaze  (309)827-7678

Blaze photo by Tia Bill.
Rivermen photo by Chris Loudermilk.

Contact the author. Shaun.Bill@ProHockeyNews.com or follow him on Twitter @SLBatPHN

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