The plain and simple truth is that I would not be a hockey fan without the influence of the Peoria Rivermen.
Besides having the opportunity to enjoy a beautiful sport that provides me with tangible examples of so many of the values in life that I hold dear–teamwork, tradition, sacrifice, etc–hockey has no doubt improved my life. Through this very blog and the power of twitter, I am able to connect with people in my own community and all over the world to share my thoughts and opinions on something that we are all passionate about, and that is very powerful and special thing.
Many people throughout the internet hockey world have told me that I am the biggest, or even only, Blues fan they know. But I was not always that way. I came to love the Blues through the Rivermen. Now? I am in too deep and no matter what, I don’t think I could get out if I wanted to. I bleed blue, but that does not come close to making it any easier.
I fully know and understand that there’s plenty more to life than hockey, but this is most upsetting thing to happen to me in a long time. It is hard to explain, partially because I can barely sort through my own feelings, but in addition to sad and angry, I feel so let down and betrayed. I overwhelmingly supported Tom Stillman’s buying of the Blues and Rivermen, mainly because I felt that as a local St. Louisian and self-identified Blues fan, if nothing else, he actually cared about the history and traditions associated with this organization. The thing that really sealed the deal in my mind—and now it seems so incredibly stupid—was when I learned that Stillman had been to Peoria, prior to even expressing interest in buying the teams, merely to take in a game just as any other fan would. I thought he cared. I was wrong.
For myself, just getting to Rivermen games has not been easy. It is an hour and a half drive each way, but we always did it because we thought it would be a worthy venture. And for the most part, it was. Win or lose, of all the hockey games I have ever attended, there have only been a very small handful that I have not enjoyed for one reason or another. Many times that reason was because I was spending time with various family members, all the while escaping from the normal, sometimes tedious and stressful, familial things. Last night, everyone including my mother, father, two brothers, brother’s girlfriend, sister-in-law, grandpa and almost two year-old niece was on hand to take in the last game in Peoria Rivermen franchise history.
Besides the obvious loss of the team in Peoria, the hardest thing is that, as a Blues fan too, I care about these prospects and their subsequent development into NHL-ready hockey players. But as an avid AHL fan, I also hold the knowledge that they will not develop any better as members of the Chicago Wolves, if the rumors for affiliation is to be believed. I oppose the move not only because I am sad to lose the hockey team that I love, but because I know how the Wolves work. The parent organization has no say, while prospects will be benched, halting and perhaps ruining their entire development process, and AHL journeymen will play in their stead. They will do whatever they think it takes to win, even that means ignoring their responsibilities as a team in a developmental league. Sure, Wolves fans are a loyal bunch and will continue to show up for their team, but they will not put themselves out there to support Blues prospects above the AHL level. Sure, they have a TV deal, but Blues prospects in Chicagoland will not ever be fully embraced. Sure, the Wolves are one of the few teams in the AHL to make money, but it is not as though the Blues will see a cent. No, instead they will see ill-prepared prospects and a diminished and/or alienated fanbase.
But now we must ask, what is in store for the future of Peoria hockey? The simple and very hard answer to that question is that nobody really knows. After 31 seasons of professional hockey in this city, it is almost impossible to imagine that this could be the end. Even with the sale of the team to the Vancouver Canucks finalized, there is still a small chance that they will not be moving the team for at least the next season. Personally, I cannot and will not bring myself to adopt Canucks prospects for my own team. As Vancouver is my most-hated NHL team, this idea merely adds insult to injury. Of course, this is my own sentiment and not likely one that is shared by the Rivermen fanbase at large. As for other options, the ECHL has said that they would be willing to add a team in Peoria as they have fond memories of the Rivermen’s ECHL era. Another possibility is a Central Hockey League team. The Bloomington Blaze are already in Bloomington, IL and there could be a interesting and inherent geographical rivalry between the two teams as the cities are located just 47 minutes from one another. Another possibility is a United States Hockey League team. While it would not be professional hockey, this is perhaps the most intriguing option. The USHL is the top junior league in the US and strictly for players ages 16-20. The league is widely regarded to be on par with Canadian Hockey League in terms of competitiveness and the development of top prospects. USHL players are unpaid and more often than not go on to play in the NCAA. Currently 222 USHL alums have played in the NHL, including the Blues’ very own David Backes, TJ Oshie, Chris Porter and Jaden Schwartz.
Finally, I would like to express my deep and sincere thanks to the Peoria Rivermen team and the players, past and present, for making us fans feel at home, especially in the past few weeks since the official announcement was made. At times this season it was difficult to watch the team struggle as wave after wave of unfortunate injuries and ill-timed NHL call ups depleted the line up of what should have been a competitive team blessed with depth at most positions. But honestly, I wouldn’t trade it.
Loyal to the very end, fans gave a standing ovation in the final minute in Peoria Rivermen franchise history as we watched our team lose 0-3 to the bitter rival Milwaukee Admirals. I cried. I cried and I am not the least bit ashamed. I cried not for the result of the game, but for the powerful outpouring of love and emotion that was made. Following that, there was the showing of a video that the players and Rivermen staff members made as a goodbye and thank you to the fans. Again, I cried. We may not be the most rich or plentiful, but Rivermen fans are passionate and have supported this team through thick and thin. It seems that most everyone has realized that fact. Everyone, except for the one person who was responsible for the fate of the Peoria Rivermen.