By Dave Eminian
Of The Journal-Star
PEORIA, Ill. – Not too many guys would be fired up to join an eighth-place team in the ECHL.
Ed Hill is the exception, not to mention the exceptional defenseman the Peoria Rivermen have needed from the moment he arrived via a trade with Florida on Dec. 2.
“I didn’t know anything about Peoria when (Florida head coach) Gerry Fleming called me in and told me I was traded,” Hill said. “He just told me the Rivermen were struggling, much as Florida was at the time. But I was excited about the deal – there were things about it that seemed like a good situation.”
Hill, 24, looks polished on the ice, a lockout victim blueliner that has stabilized a shaky unit.
The Rivermen are 2-0-1 since he’s joined the lineup.
“You don’t get scouted as much playing in the south,” Hill said. “Scouts really watch the north teams closely, and that’s good for a guy in my situation.”
The 6- 3, 215-pound NHL prospect has, it seems, always has been trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
He was a high pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, where Nashville grabbed him in the second round (61st overall) after he helped Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League reach the vaunted Memorial Cup title game ( a 6-2 loss to Rimouski).
Hill didn’t sign with Nashville, heading back to Barrie for an overage junior year.
He eventually landed in Boston’s 2001 training camp, played two exhibition games, then was dropped off the NHL team’s 50-man roster days before the season began.
“Making an NHL team as a 20-year-old would have been tough, so it’s hard to say how close I came,” Hill said. “By the time they let me go, teams in the AHL were already filled up, and that was the year the IHL had folded. Jobs were scarce everywhere. I was out of luck.”
He stayed home for six weeks, then won a two-way contract with AHL Lowell. A guy on the verge of an NHL roster spot started his pro career in the class-AA ECHL, with Florida.
By Christmas, he’d earned a call-up to Lowell, and stayed there for the final 37 games.
He spent parts of three seasons between Florida and AHL Lowell, and in July of 2002 was signed to a three-year NHL-AHL contract with Carolina.
So here he is, in Peoria, free agency looming, the NHL parked in a lockout and AHL rosters jammed.
“I don’t think I’m in Carolina’s plans, to be honest,” Hill said. “They have 10 defensemen in Lowell, some of them are playing forward. There doesn’t seem to be room for me.”
So he’s trying to lead the Rivermen back to contention and catch the eye of another NHL organization, maybe even an old friend coaching at the next level in the system, AHL Worcester.
Hill played for ex-Rivermen coach (now AHL Worcester coach) Don Granato when the latter coached Green Bay to the Clark Cup in the USHL in 1996-97.
“He was one of the best coaches I ever played for,” Hill said. “We won it all, and I made a lot of progress there.”
Hill was only 15 when Granato recruited him from Newburyport, Mass., to play in a USHL circuit against players mostly aged 19 and 20.
Hill’s father, Ed Sr., was a 15th-round pick of NHL Detroit in 1977, and played briefly for Kalamazoo in the IHL.
His sister, Courtney, just earned All-America honors as a field hockey star at University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
“As for me, it’s too early to tell what’s going to happen,” Hill said. “We’ve got to just battle back to .500 first, and get ourselves into the playoffs.
“Then, we all have a chance.”
And that’s the situation Hill and his teammates are seeking.