The History of the Peoria Rivermen Hockey Team

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An ice hockey team in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL), the Peoria Rivermen have been a mainstay in Illinois since the 1982-83 season but have played in four different leagues. Ken Wilson founded the team, and it began playing in the now-defunct International Hockey League (IHL) as the Peoria Prancers in the 1982-83 season. After consecutive losing seasons, the Peoria Civic Center took over the team and held a fan vote contest to rename the team, with readers of the Peoria Journal Star newspaper selecting the name Rivermen.

The change in ownership and branding paid immediate dividends as the Rivermen won the IHL Turner Cup in the 1984-85 season after finishing the regular season with a record of 48-25-9 under head coach Pat Kelly. The Rivermen played in the IHL until the 1995-96 season and won the Turner Cup again in 1990-91 under head coach Bob Plager.

The 1990-91 season remains one of the best seasons in Rivermen franchise history, especially since Plager was a last-minute replacement for former coach Wayne Thomas, whom the St. Louis Blues (Peoria's NHL parent club) hired as assistant coach before the start of the season. In addition to winning a second Turner Cup, the Rivermen had a record 18-game win streak that year and set 41 franchise, league, and professional hockey records. Fifteen members of that year's team later played or coached in the NHL. Plager was head coach of the Blues for 11 games in the 1992-93 season.

The Rivermen played in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) from 1996-2005. It made the ECHL playoffs in eight of nine seasons and won the Kelly Cup Championship in 1999-2000, defeating Louisiana 4-2 in the best-of-seven series. Don Granato was the team's coach that season. He has since served as an assistant with the Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, and Buffalo Sabres in the NHL. Granato was promoted to head coach of the Sabres in June 2021.

Peoria moved up to the American Hockey League (AHL) in the 2005-06 season and spent eight years in the league before the Blues decided to cut ties with its longtime minor league affiliate. After a brief period in which it looked as though Peoria would lose its only professional hockey team, owner Bart Rogers got the Rivermen in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL).

The Rivermen have been a model of consistency through nine seasons in the SPHL. It hasn't had a winning percentage lower than .607 and won the SPHL President's Cup in 2021-22. They also made the President's Cup finals in 2016, 2017, and 2018. In addition to their on-ice success, Peoria regularly leads SPHL teams in attendance.

Beyond Plager and Granato, the Rivermen have had several players and coaches make it to the NHL. Jonathan Cheechoo (501 career NHL games), Ryan Reaves (828 NHL games), and Ian Cole (748 career NHL games) are among the many Rivermen player alumni who have had lengthy NHL careers.

The franchise also launched the Peoria Rivermen Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991 to honor players, coaches, and "builders" who have contributed to the organization's success on and off the ice. The inaugural class featured Darrell May, Doug Evans, and Pat Kelly, while subsequent inductees include Plager (1994), Nelson Emerson (1996), Guy Hebert (1999), Kelly Chase (2001), and Trent Whitfield (2013).