By Kirk Wessler
Of The Journal Star
PEORIA, Ill. – Jason Christie (pictured) and Trevor Baker, two of a kind, no longer could deny the obvious. Their eyes and voices betrayed them.
They had not expected this task to be so difficult.
All of Saturday, the Peoria Rivermen coach and his captain tried to expectorate the bitter taste of the previous night, when the Toledo Storm had nuked their last playoff hope. The Rivermen had one last game to play before the Peoria home crowd, and Christie and Baker were determined to win it.
But desperately hard-fought as their 5-4 shootout victory over the Dayton Bombers was, that was not the tough part.
All of Saturday, Christie and Baker had tried to check their emotions, put aside the knowledge their six years together in Peoria were about to end.
But after Baker scored the decisive goal in the shootout and launched the crowd of 7,255 into a frenzy, after the captain had led his teammates on a victory lap to a standing ovation, and after he and veterans Randy Rowe and Tyler Rennette had laid their jerseys on the giant Rivermen logo at center ice, truth flowed.
Christie’s jaw tightened the screws on his tear ducts, and he inhaled slowly. That battle won, he opened his mouth to speak, but the first utterance was squeaky air, followed by a burst of words.
“This is tough, my first time going through this,” the Rivermen coach said. “Every year, I’ve known where I’m going. Now I have no place to go.”
Just outside Christie’s office, Baker sat at his locker with bloodshot eyes.
“It’s just so tough to let go,” the captain said. “Every year here, there was always a chance of me coming back. It’s a little more not realistic this year. It’s really tough.”
Christie and Baker came to Peoria in 1999 as players. Christie was the veteran, Baker the rookie, but they were two of a kind. Undersized fire-breathers with pit-bull mentalities. Fans loved them. And as long as hockey is played in this town, they’ll never be forgotten.
The 1999-2000 Rivermen won the Kelly Cup, symbol of the ECHL championship. Then Christie hung up his skates and was hired as head coach, and Baker ultimately was named his team captain.
Six years. That’s an eternity in professional sports. Especially in the minor leagues.
But when you settle into a place, become such an integral part of the sports fabric of a community, you can start to think maybe eternity really lasts forever. At least, you hope.
Kelley Christie hopes, even though her head knows better. As a hockey wife, she knows change is part of the game. And the change that has hit them is simple.
After nine seasons in the ECHL, the Rivermen next fall will move up to the American Hockey League, one step below the NHL as the top farm team for the St. Louis Blues. A happy byproduct will be a higher caliber of play for a fan base that has grown in number and appreciation for the game over the past decade. The downside is realizing who won’t return.
Where Christie winds up is anyone’s guess. It is possible, although not considered likely, the Blues will decide to keep him in some capacity.
“We’ve been crossing our fingers, running around and doing an Indian dance,” Kelley Christie said. “We would love to stay here. We love Peoria; it’s just the best-kept secret.”
Baker’s chance of staying here is so remote as to be nonexistent. A free agent, he has played a total of 28 games in the AHL, none the past two seasons. He has hit his ceiling as a player, although he could certainly play a big role for another team in the “E.”
That thought was too much for him to consider Saturday night. Too many memories, too many emotions washed over him in waves he didn’t see coming.
Christie, who would say, “Anytime you stand behind the bench in Carver rink, it’s a good thing,” didn’t see them, either.
When 60 minutes of regulation and five more of overtime ended in a 4-4 tie, and with the shootout knotted at 2, Christie stood in his most sacred spot and made one last decision. He turned to his captain, the one guy whose heart he knew was as big as his own, and called on Baker to win the game.
“If there is a special way, as a coach, you want it to end, that’s the way,” Christie said. “That’s what you want from your captain, your leader. I just wanted it to happen for him.
“It was meant to be.”