By Dave Eminian
Of The Journal Star
PEORIA, Ill. – Bruce Saurs took a breath, repeating the question as his Peoria Rivermen skated around Carver Arena as an ECHL team for the final time Saturday.
“Is it a bittersweet night for me?” he said. “No. Just bitter.
“These guys should have made the playoffs. I feel bad for them.”
And with that, a nine-year era in Peoria professional hockey ended. Bound for the American Hockey League next season, the Rivermen notched one last ECHL victory, 5-4 in a shootout, over Dayton in front of 7,255.
Rivermen coach Jason Christie added to his franchise-record win total. Proud veterans Randy Rowe, Trevor Baker and Tyler Rennette played, and scored, one last time.
It ended dramatically, of course. Baker, standing at center ice in the penalty-shot tiebreaker, crowd standing and imploring him to win it, did just that. He skated in, faked goaltender Michael Ayers to the ice and wrapped the puck between his pad and the left post.
The Rivermen, led by Baker, skated one final lap around the rink, sticks raised, waving goodbye to the fans. A few minutes later, Baker, Rowe and Rennette returned to the ice for a curtain call. In turn, each pulled off his jersey, gently laid it on the team logo at center ice and skated away.
Back in the locker room, Rowe kissed Rennette and Baker on the tops of their heads, and all three veterans cried.
“We’ve had a lot of great guys come through here the last nine years, special players, special teams,” said Christie, who also fought for composure minutes after a gathering of players, coaches and front-office members in his office raised glasses of Crown Royal and toasted their incredible reign in the ECHL.
They were the final chapter to an amazing ECHL success story written by many others for a Rivermen team that went 422-207-66 (.655) to dominate the league.
Blaine Fitzpatrick, Dan Hodge, Doug Evans, Darren Maloney, thank you.
Rowe gave Peoria a 2-0 lead at 7:04 of the first period. Rowe ended up playing 328 games for Peoria, including playoffs, during which his 94 goals were third most in the ECHL franchise’s history, and his 204 points were sixth.
Duane Derksen, Derek Booth, J.F.Boutin, Butch Kaebel, thank you.
Baker, meanwhile, assisted on the game’s first two goals before he added the game winner. The gritty captain finished his 398-game Peoria career with 1,109 penalty minutes – most ever for the ECHL Rivermen – and 221 points, 91 goals and 130 assists, all fourth-best.
“I wish it could have been different, it’s sad, it hurts,” Baker said. “I’ve been with these guys five years, and it’s hard to let go. It won’t be the same again.”
Darren Clark, Jason Lawmaster, Jeremy Yablonski, Jean-Guy Trudel, thank you.
Rennette buried a power-play goal from the doorstep 10 seconds into the second period to build a 3-1 lead. He played 465 games for the Rivermen, during which his 130 goals were the most ever in Peoria’s ECHL era, and his 125 assists ranked sixth and his 255 points were second.
“This is the only place I’ve ever played in the ECHL,” Rennette said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever play again. I didn’t know how to say goodbye, but standing out there at the end, leaving my jersey there, seemed like the right thing to do.”
Arvid Rekis, Curtis Sanford, Joe Rybar, Matt Golden, thank you.
They played on. The Rivermen built a 4-2 lead, Dayton rallied to force overtime, then Baker played the hero’s role one last time.
Christie finished with 234 victories, the most in the 23-year history of Peoria’s pro hockey franchise. He is eighth all-time on the ECHL coaching wins list.
Late Saturday, Toledo was shut out at home by Trenton. The Rivermen officially missed the playoffs by three points.
“It was a helluva roller-coaster ride,” Christie said. “Seeing Baker, Rowe, Rennette put their jerseys on center ice like that, it proved how much those guys cared about this team, this city. None of us know what is ahead for each other.”
Come Monday morning, they’ll have no jobs.
The AHL is coming. The ECHL is past.
Jason Christie, Trevor Baker, Tyler Rennette, Randy Rowe, thank you.