It has now been four decades that I have gone to Peoria to see the Blues farm club play hockey. The teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s were a loads of fun to watch as the likes of Nels Emerson and Michel Mongeau lit the lamp with regularity while tough guys Kelly Chase and Tony Twist excited sell-out crowds with crunching body-checks and fists of fury. How great it was to track the development of net minders such as Curtis Joseph, Guy Hebert and Pat Jablonski and then see them later tending goal in the NHL. As great as some of those teams were, though, none were as much fun for me to watch as the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League during the 2009-10 season.
Lars Eller, now a regular for the Montreal Canadiens, was the leading scorer (18 goals and 57 points in 70 games), a first-year player, only 20 years old at the time. He was usually flanked by wingers Chris Porter, now with the Blues, of course, and former Blue Adam Cracknell, currently with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Wingers Nick Drazenovic, signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins and now with their farm team in Wilke-Barre/Scranton of the AHL and Barry Tallackson, currently with the Berlin Polar Bears in Germany, were the leading goal scorers with 19 tallies each. Veteran NHL center Derek Armstrong (Islanders, Senators, Rangers, Kings, Blues) provided stability and leadership for a relatively young club, as did another former Blue, Yan Stastny, now playing in Sweden with Mora IK. The "Twist & Chase" of this team turned out to be the Blues' Ryan Reaves (167 penalty minutes in 76 games) and yet another former Blue, D. J. King, currently with the Ontario Reign of the ECHL. Another pugilistic expert on the roster was fan favorite Anthony Peluso, who racked up 57 minutes in penalties in 22 games. Peluso was claimed off waivers from the Blues in 2013 and is currently playing for the Winnipeg Jets. Other notable forwards included Aaron Palushaj (traded to Montreal), Pascal Pelletier, both now playing in Russia for a KHL team, winger Julien Talbot with Tallackson in Berlin and center Cam Paddock, now playing pro hockey in Denmark.
The defense was led by AHL All-Star Jonas Junland, now playing in the SEL with the Linkopings White Lions. Junland scored 14 goals and 44 points in 74 games and was called up to the Blues at the end of the season, recording two assists in three games. Unfortunately, Junland was extremely unhappy in Peoria, terribly homesick and missing his fiancé (now wife) Karolina, and when it was clear he would not play in St. Louis in 2010 and be returned to Peoria, he bolted home to Sweden and signed with Farjestads of the SEL. He is still Blues' property, however. He was paired with the indomitable Tyson Strachan, now playing defense in the NHL for Buffalo. Strachan was a particularly nice guy and after several games would chat hockey with me and my Peoria hockey pals Billy Dann and Steve Schlosser in the club upstairs at Carver Arena. This was also the professional debut of the Blues' Ian Cole, right out of Notre Dame University. I was fortunate to be at his first AHL game, highlighted by a beautiful game winning goal, and met his proud parents after the game. Other defensemen included NHL veteran (Carolina, Chicago) Danny Richmond, currently playing in Germany, Nate Guenin, appearing tonight with the visiting Colorado Avalanche and Steve Wagner, another very personable, nice guy who happened to be on my Blues Fantasy Camp team later that year in September. Wagner is also currently playing in Germany.
The goaltending duties were shared that season by Ben Bishop and Hannu "Ears" Toivonen. Bishop, of course, is the number one guy for the Tampa Bay Lightning after he was traded by the Blues to Ottawa in 2012 for a second round draft choice. Ottawa traded him to Tampa Bay in 2013 for forward Cory Conacher and a draft choice. He turned out to be gold as he set franchise records in Tampa last season, winning 37 games with a 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. Toivonen was acquired by the Blues in an ill-fated trade with Boston in 2007. The Bruins acquired forward Carl Soderberg, who is doing quite well this season in Beantown, scoring six goals and 23 points in 36 games. Toivonen was the Rivermen's best goalie, outplaying Bishop a bit (2.7 to 2.8 goals against average; .906 to .901 save percentage), although Bishop recorded 23 wins in 48 games while Toivonen had 11 in 26 games. "Ears" was traded (along with Richmond) to Chicago towards the end of the season for goaltender Joe Fallon, who did not impress in 10 games and was not re-signed.
This edition of the Rivermen did not qualify for the playoffs, finishing fifth in the West. They didn't score quite enough goals and gave up a few too many. Nevertheless, I was able to meet most of the players after games and cherish the many good memories that season, commemorated by the pictured team-issued New Year's Eve jersey I obtained and had signed by every member of the team at a post-game skate. And, so, as we approach New Year's Eve, I wish all my readers good tidings for the coming year and may we all be blessed with good health and many more good hockey memories.
-- Rick Ackerman, for St Louis Game Time