Peoria, IL is 168 miles from St. Louis, roughly a two and half hour drive (or two hours if you’re my mom). The drive can be at times monotonous, passing a never ending cycle of farms and small towns, but the journey for many has a much larger meaning. For nearly 30 years, the Blues had an affiliation with the minor league franchise located there, the Rivermen, and several NHL standouts got their start in Peoria.
The Rivermen – A History of Success
The Rivermen have been a consistent force in minor league hockey since they began in 1984-85 in the IHL. They’ve won three championships: two in the IHL (1984-85 and 1990-91) and one in the ECHL (1999-00). In 29 seasons as a Blues affiliate, the Rivermen made the playoffs in 22 of those seasons. But as we know with any minor league affiliate, winning isn’t the ultimate goal of the parent franchise.
The Blues, like every other NHL club, utilize their farm system for grooming prospects in hopes of bringing them up when they are ready. Peoria was excellent in that regard as well. The Rivermen helped funnel over 40 prospects into the NHL, some with extensive careers at the major level and others who only were able to make an impact for a year or two.
Iconic names such as Curtis Joseph, Tony Twist, Kelly Chase, Ian laperriere, Dave Lowry, Brett Hedican, David Backes, Lee Stempniak, Jay McClement, Roman Polak, Ryan Reaves, Ben Bishop, Lars Eller, Jaden Schwartz, and Jake Allen all had stops in Peoria during their careers before they were able to make the parent club and stick in the NHL. But the Blues were just as important in this process as were the Rivermen.
Former Blues standouts Bob Plager, Rick Meagher, Paul Maclean, Rick Wamsley, and Mark Reeds all came to Peoria after their careers ended to help develop young talent. The connection was strong and, for at least this Blues fan, helped develop a fandom that started with the captain’s wheel and ended with the note.
When the Blues ended their affiliation with the Rivermen after the 2012-13 season, many in Peoria believed that any connection with the Blues was forever ended. The Blues had all but promised Peoria they wouldn’t be leaving, only to leave without a word and align themselves with the Chicago Wolves, a Rivermen rival during their time in the AHL.
Almost overnight the sentiment towards the Blues in Peoria went from one of love and loyalty to hatred and disgust. Blues fans became Blackhawks fans, and hockey in Peoria faltered. Youth hockey began to shrink and many of the good young talent that had been developing at the youth level in the shadow of the AHL Rivermen left to play in Chicago. But all that changed during the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
With the first pick in 2016 the Blues selected a 6 ft. 5 in. center out of the University of Connecticut named Tage Thompson, son of former NHLer Brent Thompson.
“My love for the game, my NHL dream all really started up in Peoria,” Thompson said. “That was where it all seemed to come together for me.” Tage and younger brother Tyce were able to witness firsthand what life as a professional was like as their father was the Assistant Coach for the Rivermen.
“We had hockey camps, youth hockey practices, hanging out at Rivermen games and in the locker room there. It seemed like we were in one of those two places every moment.” Tage isn’t the first player who played in the Peoria Youth Hockey Association (PYHA) to be drafted, or to play at a high level.
Peoria native Aaron Dawson was selected in the fourth round by the Hurricanes in 2004; Pekin, IL native Bryce Aneloski was selected in the seventh round by the Senators in 2010; and Karl, Karson, and Klage Kaebel of Pekin, IL all played minor league hockey undrafted. Tage, however, is the first player to have played in the PYHA to ever score an NHL goal and, for that matter, the only player to ever even play an NHL game.
Bridging the Gap
The bridge is slowly being rebuilt between Peoria and St. Louis. The Rivermen have rebounded from the separation and have become a force in the SPHL, making it to the finals the last two seasons. The Blues have finally been able to nix the curse of their first round struggles and make pushes deeper into the playoffs. Both parties have moved on and strengthened themselves, and the Blues are no longer a taboo word in Peoria.
From a personal perspective, the Blues departure hurt. I had only known the Rivermen to be a starting point for Blues prospects, idolizing the players of the past who had brought joy to both Peoria and to St. Louis. The selection of Tage Thompson spoke to me. I played in the PYHA and for the junior hockey team in Peoria, the Mustangs (NA3HL), and my dream had been to play in the NHL from the very first time I saw Michel Mongeau play in a Rivermen sweater. Whether the Blues intended to mend the wounds they caused Peoria by selecting Thompson or not, they inexplicably did. The city and hockey community of Peoria are cheering for Thompson, and the Blues, to get over the hump and win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.