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Memorabilia Memories: Rivermen Ahoy

You might recognize the "Memorabilia Memories" (formerly "Lighting the Lamp") feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Memorabilia Memoirs" will be featured every home game day.

Game worn Jani Hakanpaa St. Patricks Day Peoria Rivermen jersey from an “off their backs” post-game auction
Game worn Jani Hakanpaa St. Patricks Day Peoria Rivermen jersey from an “off their backs” post-game auction
Rick Ackerman

Memorabilia Memories with Rick Ackerman

R.I.P Peoria Rivermen...

Only 168 miles northeast of St. Louis, Peoria was the home of the St. Louis Blues' primary farm team for well over 30 years. When players were called up to the NHL by the Blues, they could simply jump into a car and drive to St. Louis in around three hours, a very convenient and practical arrangement. However, that cozy affiliation ended in 2013 when Blues' owner Tom Stillman sold the franchise to the Vancouver Canucks (who promptly moved the team to Utica, New York) in a cost-cutting move since attendance in P-town (mostly due to a lack of success on the ice and an inability of the Blues to promote the team properly) was severely lagging and the franchise was hemorrhaging money left and right. The Blues are currently affiliated with the independently owned Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.

The Rivermen were  born as the Peoria Prancers in 1982, operating in the old International Hockey League. The Peoria Civic Center took over the team from original owner Ken Wilson in 1984 and, after a fan contest sponsored by the Peoria Journal Star newspaper, renamed the team the Rivermen. The team was sold to Bruce Saurs, a local businessman with several car dealerships, in 1989. Saurs, who just recently passed away in July at age 88, owned the team, then in the East Coast Hockey League, for almost 20 years. R.I.P Mr. Saurs...

In 2005 Peoria joined the American Hockey League, relocated by the Blues from Worcester, Massachusetts. The franchise in Worcester was originally founded in 1994 by New York Islanders owner Ray Boe, who had purchased the Springfield Indians AHL franchise and moved it to Worcester, just west of Boston. In 1995, Boe, along with Indians GM and Coach Jimmy Roberts, negotiated a deal with the Blues to purchase the franchise. The Worcester Icecats would be the Blues primary minor league team, and the ECHL Peoria Rivermen would in turn become the Icecats minor league affiliate.  In eight seasons, the AHL Rivs only made the playoffs three times, and were bounced in the first round by Houston in all three of those playoff series.

My first experience with the Rivermen was in 1990 when I attended a couple of weekend games in Peoria and saw a championship team, coached by Bob Plager, rout the Milwaukee Admirals. Nels Emerson, Michel Mongeau, Jimmy Vesey, Steve Tuttle, Dave Thomlinson and David Bruce led the scoring parade (the Rivs scored 15 goals in those two games), while Kelly Chase and Tony Twist battled and brawled the Admirals into submission. Tom Tilley, Dom Lavoie, Rob Robinson and Randy Skarda provided a strong defense, along with goaltenders Guy Hebert and Pat Jablonski. Peoria would go on to win the IHL's Turner Cup that year, defeating the Fort Wayne Komets (current Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau starred for this club) in six games. What a great team that was!

I began to attend Rivermen games quite frequently starting in 2005, sometimes making the easy drive to Peoria and back to St. Louis on the same day. Some familiar players on that team included David Backes (10 points in 12 games), Lee Stempniak, Jeff Woywitka, D.J. King, Jay McClement, Reed Low and goaltenders Reinhard Divis, Patrick Lalime, Jason Bacashihua and Curtis Sanford. The following year, Yan Stastny, Jamie Rivers, Roman Polak, and goaltender Marek Schwarz joined the Rivermen, along with Barret Jackman, who played one game that season in Peoria. In 2007, notable new-comers included Ryan Reaves, Chris Porter and goaltenders Ben Bishop and Hannu Toivonen. Erik Johnson also played one game in Peoria that season. The 2008 roster included highly touted defenseman Jonas Junland and goaltender Manny Legace. Alex Pietrangelo played one game that season, as well as a young center from Finland named Jori Lehtera (one assist in seven games). Lars Eller, Adam Cracknell and Ian Cole became Rivermen in 2009, followed by Phil McRae, Nikita Nikitin and goaltender Jake Allen in 2010. In 2012, Jaden Schwartz, Jani Hakanpaa and goaltender Mike McKenna were in Peoria, as well as Brian Elliott on a two-game conditioning assignment.

It's difficult to say what was more fun: the occasional post-game jersey-off-their-backs auction or the annual Tip-a-Rivs dinner at a local Peoria restaurant. I was fortunate to  obtain game worn jerseys from Jonas Junland (2), Phil McRae, Brett Ponich, Sergey Andronov and Jani Hakanpaa at those auctions, which raised money for the Children's Hospital in Peoria. The most ever paid at one of these functions was over $1400 for a Manny Legace jersey; the average price was around $500, very surprising for minor league jerseys in an economically challenged locale. At the charity dinners, players would serve and then share the meal with attendees. My favorite "waiters" over the years included Ben Bishop, Ian Cole and Jake Allen. Cole was especially entertaining as he sought a tip after each course he served instead of waiting until the meal was over. And the funniest occurrence was when "sure-hands" Jake Allen dropped a plate of salad on the floor.

Those good times in Peoria are now over and done as a visit to the Blues' farm team in Chicago just isn't the same. The drive is much longer and the Allstate Arena in Rosemont (a suburb of Chicago) is not as quaint, charming or cozy as Carver Arena in Peoria. I will truly miss the Rivermen and the great hockey fans of Peoria.