The Chicago Hitmen played their final home game of the season Saturday at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva.
The question becomes, will the Hitmen be back for more?
That was not supposed to be in question, considering the Hitmen, who moved from Rolling Meadows last year, just completed the first season of a five-year lease with the arena. But a contentious season off the ice with Centrum East-West Arenas Venture, the arena’s management team, spilled into the legal system, requiring court intervention just to allow the Hitmen to close the home schedule at Fox Valley.
The next step is court-ordered arbitration between the team and Centrum, but Centrum managing partner Timothy Weilandt on Monday said he does not expect arbitration sessions to close the divide.
“I can’t envision any scenario in which we would be able to patch up our relationship,” Weilandt said. “I think it’s irretrievably broken, and I have a very difficult time imagining the Hitmen playing in our arena starting this fall, and the reason being for that is they’re in default of a contract we have with them in so many ways, I have difficulty envisioning them coming back into compliance with the contract.”
Weilandt was unsure when arbitration would begin, saying it likely would be May at the earliest. He expected each side to pick one arbitrator, with a third arbitrator selected by a neutral party also likely to be involved.
Hitmen owner Mark Hammersmith, through a team spokesman, directed questions about the team’s future to team attorney Peter Storm, who did not return phone messages left at his office.
The Hitmen field two teams that are part of the North American Hockey League, featuring its higher-level tier-2 team. NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld, who has been with the league six years as commissioner and three years in a different capacity, cannot recall a dispute between a league team and facility that previously reached this point.
“These guys came together pretty quick at the end of the summer and they have some disagreements they have to work through,” Frankenfeld said. “The Hitmen club is, with the league, paid up, and guaranteed to operate next year. They’ve got a disagreement with the facility and we view that as a disagreement the facility and the team has to resolve.”
Frankenfeld said the Hitmen would need to have any potential move approved by the league’s board of governors if the team sought to move out of market. He hoped the Hitmen could instead stay put and gain traction in the community after a debut season with lukewarm attendance.
“I think both of them believe in their side, and that’s why they have to get it figured out,” Frankenfeld said. “I think I’m more optimistic that whatever comes out of arbitration gives them a path to move forward, whether or not it’s with the current lease, a different lease or no lease, I think it’ll give them a path to move forward with a real understanding of what the path is, and I think at that time people can make choices.”
Weilandt said the Hitmen owe more than $100,000 in disputed charges, and “the tab just keeps on getting bigger for them,” with projected charges upcoming for capital expenditures at the rink and summer ice time.
Centrum operates Fox Valley Ice Arena on behalf of the Kane County Forest Preserve, which owns the arena. Weilandt denied an assertion in an article on a junior hockey website that Centrum was interested in purchasing the team, but said Hammersmith asked Centrum in November if the management team was interested in buying a piece of the Hitmen.
Hitmen coach Brent Agrusa said last week he tries to steer clear of the business side of the operation, but is planning on a bustling offseason, including separate camps in Chicago, Detroit and California to help the team identify talent for the coming season. There is also a league draft in May.
“A lot of times the summers are more hectic than during the season,” Agrusa said.
That figures to be especially true this offseason, with off-ice uncertainty complicating the team’s planning. Weilandt said a junior hockey presence is important to Fox Valley Ice Arena but added “this particular organization doesn’t appear to be the organization that belongs here.”
“I don’t know what they want from us,” Weilandt said. “They blame us, they blame everybody, but I think they’re a very bad organization, and I don’t really want to do business with them. I guess that could be the bottom line, right there.”