City Council faces off over hockey

“The IceHogs’ name and franchise is not for sale,” proclaimed team co-owner Craig Drecktrah, eliciting uproarious applause from fans in attendance.

The futures of the Rockford IceHogs and the MetroCentre overshadowed all other issues at the Rockford City Council’s Dec. 26 meeting.

During the meeting, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) and the City Council discussed the proposed issuance of $23 million in bonds for MetroCentre renovations and the acquisition of an American Hockey League (AHL) franchise.

Feeling they’ve been silent too long, IceHogs owners Dr. Kris Tumilowicz and Craig Drecktrah stated their case during public participation.

“We are presented with a takeover situation and we, frankly, don’t know how to respond,” Tumilowicz said.

With Centre Events Board Chairman Gary Marzorati listening carefully from a seat behind him, Drecktrah used his public participation time to blast the MetroCentre Authority’s tactics.

“It was gestapo negotiation,” Drecktrah charged. “We were told that we had to sell; that it was this price. If we didn’t, we would not get anything, and our team and its name would be taken away from us.”

No one from the MetroCentre spoke during public participation, but Marzorati and general manager Corey Pearson did respond to the accusations at the Winnebago County Board meeting two nights later. See “IceHogs score County Board win” in this issue.

“We haven’t accepted any offers, primarily because we never put the team up for sale,” Tumilowicz explained. “What is the fair price for a business that doesn’t want to sell?”

The owners agree the United Hockey League (UHL) IceHogs’ track record deserves a new five-year lease with an option for another five years.

The team has raised more than $300,000 for local charities, is second in league attendance and recently celebrated its 1-millionth fan. The IceHogs have gradually built a loyal following over the past eight seasons. The team recorded its first profit last year.

Tumilowicz, affectionately known as “Dr. T,” stressed ownership and operation of a sports franchise is a risk only private investors should assume. If there is a loss, it can be written off by a private entity. If the team were publicly-owned at a loss, however, taxpayers would bear that burden.

By Marzorati and Pearson’s plan, the MetroCentre’s current $912,000 annual subsidy would be redirected to repay bonds, and ownership of a hockey team would, ideally, generate enough to cover operating expenses.

“The MetroCentre cannot stand on their own without its $912,000 subsidy from the city,” Drecktrah added. “Who are they to tell this city that they need to own an American League hockey team to pay back bonds?”

IceHogs ownership argued some things just don’t need fixing.

“We are not here looking to help a struggling team,” Tumilowicz noted. “We are here to help a struggling building in a downtown location.”

Dr. T also expressed skepticism regarding whether an AHL team could draw an increased attendance since so many games would be played on weekdays. The UHL schedule revolves more around weekend contests.

Tumilowicz asked the City Council to separate the $3 million to purchase a hockey team from the $20 million for MetroCentre improvements, arguing they are distinct issues.

The first bond sale is expected to be Feb. 12.

Tumilowicz and Drecktrah both concluded by asking the city not to take their team away.

Ald. Frank Beach (R-10) made a motion to amend the bond authorization amount from $23 million to $20 million, whereby the arena improvements and franchise purchase would be voted on separately, in theory.

“My concern,” Beach expressed, “is when we take out that subsidy, from an operational perspective, and we put it into a bond debt perspective, there leaves that hole.”

Beach added there will likely be additional unknown expenses associated with owning a team and argued to vote later on the $3 million to purchase a hockey franchise.

Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) agreed arena improvements and the purchase of a hockey team should be voted on separately and argued the current recommendation would give the city too much control over how to use the $23 million of the intergovernmental agreement.

Much to the displeasure of IceHogs fans closely monitoring the proceedings, Mayor Morrissey seemed to indicate the irrelevance of separating the $3 million from the $20 million.

During a heated exchange with McNeely, Morrissey revealed, “The funds in the $20 million could be used either for building construction or team acquisition.”

“I believe that this city should be supporting the IceHogs,” McNeely stated, siding with Tumilowicz and Drecktrah.

Beach’s motion to amend the report’s recommendation failed when only Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) and McNeely joined him in voting for the change.

The original $23 million Planning and Development Committee report passed with only Beach and McNeely voting nay.

McNeely cast the only vote against adopting the committee’s report recommending approval of the intergovernmental agreement among the city, the county and the MetroCentre.

Ald. Victory Bell (D-5) read in the ordinances to approve the intergovernmental agreement and authorize issuing the $23 million in bonds, then moved to suspend the rules to bring them up for vote.

Aldermen Beach, Holt and McNeely were able to lay the matters over, however, since suspending the rules requires a minimum of 10 votes.

Had Aldermen Dan Conness (D-14), Ann Thompson (D-7) and Carl Wasco (D-4) been present, the outcome may have been different.

The County Board has since stipulated its $9 million contribution over 20 years will only be made if the issue of purchasing a sports franchise is dropped.

To find out how the Rockford City Council tackled this new obstacle, read the online exclusive at

From the Jan. 3-9, 2007, issue

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