Bloomington Blaze President David Holt announces details of the upcoming schedule and personnnel situation for the "new" Blaze in the SPHL. (Zach Dietmeier/WJBC)
By Zach Dietmeier
BLOOMINGTON - The Bloomington Blaze and Peoria Rivermen are off and running in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
The team owners and league officials officially announced the new partnerships Wednesday. SPHL President Jim Combs said both teams will bring a new dimension to the league.
"They really came to us and got together to make a pitch to get the SPHL up here," Combs said. "They've been at other levels where the economics didn't work but they knew they would be a fit with our league because everyone can see this working long-term."
Blaze President David Holt said Bloomington and Peoria will play each other 14 times over a 56-game schedule. The dates and locations will be released around July 1.
Holt said the new partnership offers stability in the organization and in the community. He hoped the Blaze-Rivermen rivalry will grow into the ultimate community experience.
"It's something we've never had in Bloomington or Central Illinois hockey," Holt said. "It's icing on the cake but also to have a new league with new and familiar opponents is special all the way around."
A contract with Head Coach Brian Gratz is being finalized. The focus on stabilizing the hockey scene locally excited Holt and his ownership group, which consists of Central Illinois Management President John Butler, U.S. Cellular Coliseum General Manager Bart Rogers, and long-time Rivemen owners Bruce Saurs and his son Tim.
According to Holt, the SPHL brings some familiarity to Central Illinois hockey diehards.
"When you look at professional hockey, having rivalries - obviously with Peoria - like when we used to play the Mississippi River Kings," Holt said. "When Peoria won the championship in the ECHL, they played the Louisiana Ice Gators who are back in the league. It's a unique situation for hockey."
Combs said most of the players from the Blaze will be familiar with the league and its style of play. Many of the players spent time in the SPHL and are used to the hard, grinding style. Fans can also expect to see more toughness and fisticuffs as the year moves along.
The challenge between Bloomington and Peoria has already been established. Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner praised the efforts of the new owners and even warned the City of Peoria what domination from its neighbor to the southeast will look like.
"All I want to say is: Jim Ardis - it's on, dude!"
Zach Dietmeier can be reached at email@example.com.