By Dave Eminian
Of The Journal Star
PEORIA, Ill. – It’ll be a while before the Peoria Rivermen know whether they will have a say in the playoffs in their final ECHL season.
But at least their voice is back tonight, in time for a two-game, weekend clash against league power Trenton.
“It hasn’t felt right, not being there, and it’s been a struggle to stay away,” said longtime Rivermen radio play-by-play man Norm Ulrich, who gets off the disabled list and into the press box for the first time this season.
“I’ve struggled right along with the coaches and players, watched what they are going through, and it made me want to get back in there as soon as possible,” Ulrich said.
“In all those years I’ve been with the Rivermen, and with the (IHL’s) San Diego Gulls for three years, too, I’ve never broadcast for a team that missed the playoffs. And I don’t intend to miss one this year.”
Ulrich, 65, reached a crossroads in his health late last summer. He learned he had 100 percent blockage in two arteries that supply his heart, and he had partial blockage in two others.
The former IHL and ECHL All-Star broadcaster, who presided over Peoria’s pro hockey record 18-game win streak and championships in the IHL and ECHL, underwent quadruple-bypass surgery Oct. 27. During the five-hour procedure, performed by Dr. Frederick Hoy, Ulrich’s heart was removed from his body and later re-started.
“I knew I was in great hands, because Dr. Hoy was a former Rivermen season-ticket holder and still plays rec hockey at Owens Center,” Ulrich said with a laugh. “But I’ll never forget the day of the surgery – we didn’t know they were going to take my heart out for a while, and that was terrifying for my wife. For me, the night before was the hardest part. You think about a lot of things.”
He thought about how he and his wife, Pearl, had a daughter, Shirley, living at home with them, and her son, Chase, 3.
He thought about another grandchild, Angel, 14, living at home with him. And how he and his wife had become legal guardians of two more grandchildren, Destiney, 10, and Kevin, 9, and were raising them.
He thought about how he’d started smoking as a 17-year-old Marine, a habit he continued for 48 years. He still smokes, but instead of a pack per day, his habit is down to one cigarette every few days.
And of course, he thought about a career with the Rivermen that is in its 13th season and includes 1,000 Peoria games broadcast.
“I want to thank David Rak (Rivermen media-relations director) for filling in on the air while I’ve been gone,” Ulrich said in preparing a punchline. “He had 31 games and couldn’t get us enough wins, and now I’ve got to get us caught up.
“Seriously, though, I want to thank the fans, and colleagues and friends who sent cards, and prayers. It pushed me through the therapy, made me want to get back quickly. My wife and I sit and wonder sometimes why things happen the way they do. But we wouldn’t have things any other way.
“We feel blessed.”