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K’s owner an investor in rival Bloomington

S. Franke

On the ice, the Fort Wayne Komets and Bloomington (Ill.) PrairieThunder have had plenty of heated moments. Off of it, they are intertwined, ever so slightly, through a common owner.

Stephen Franke, who has been the majority owner of the Komets since 1990, confirmed to The Journal Gazette that he has been a minority investor in the PrairieThunder since 2007.

“I’m an insignificant owner. I don’t have (hardly) anything to do with it,” said Franke, the 60-year-old president/CEO of Midwest Quality Gloves Inc., which is based in Chillicothe, Mo.

Michael Franke, chairman of the IHL’s Board of Governors, said a person must have roughly 20 percent ownership in more than one team for it to be deemed a conflict. He said Stephen Franke’s stake in Bloomington doesn’t qualify.

Stephen Franke doesn’t have a role in the day-to-day operations of either International Hockey League team.

“The PrairieThunder’s owners are (almost) all these Bloomington people. They are good people headed up by Tim Leighton, even though I’ve never met him,” Stephen Franke said. “I have talked to him on the phone. He’s got a good group of people from all different walks of life. I’m an insignificant guy in this deal.

“Frankly, at the end of the day, the only reason I got involved is I figured I’d get a good return on my money. (U.S. Cellular Coliseum) is a great building. It’s a great community. The Bloomington/Normal economy has been a pretty stable economy.”

Franke’s role with the PrairieThunder began as part of a transfer of power from the team’s original owners, John Butler and Mike Nelson, to a group headed by Tony Lisman, who also owned the IHL’s Muskegon Fury. In 2008, after a season that saw Bloomington and Muskegon suffer through financial difficulties, Lisman sold both of his franchises.

Leighton, an attorney, called Franke’s role with the PrairieThunder “a non-issue.” Neither Leighton nor Franke would say how big a share Franke has in the PrairieThunder. Annual budgets for IHL teams range from $1.4 million to $2.5 million, according to the Komets’ president, Michael Franke.

The IHL has six teams lined up for this season – Fort Wayne, Bloomington, Dayton, Flint, Muskegon and Port Huron – and a seventh team might be added in Moline, Ill. Evansville is slated to join in 2010 or 2011.

There is precedent for teams sharing ownership, dating back to the IHL’s former incarnation, the United Hockey League, when Dr. Eric Margenau owned teams in Missouri, Rockford and the Quad Cities. In 2004-05, Stephen Franke owned the Komets and the Kansas City Outlaws.

“I’m relatively new to the IHL hockey lineage, but as I understand the rules, there are some practical impacts with restriction to trades and such. The league has contemplated the possibility with folks having ownership of (multiple) teams,” Leighton said.

While the Komets have won back-to-back championships, the PrairieThunder has gone 85-126-20 in its three seasons and failed to make the playoffs.

According to The Bloomington Pantagraph, U.S. Cellular Coliseum operated at a loss of nearly $439,926 in the 2008-09 fiscal year, which ended April 30, despite the highest attendance of its three-year life.

“They need a couple more years and they’ll have a good following,” Stephen Franke said of the PrairieThunder, which drew 2,962 fans per game last season, third most in the league. “And they have to have a winning team. They have to make the playoffs.”