By Andy Kent
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. — Five years ago, the Peoria Rivermen found themselves in the same predicament the Florida Everblades now find themselves in.
Peoria was down 2-0 to the Louisiana IceGators in the ECHL’s best-of-seven Kelly Cup Finals, having lost those first two games at home.
This past weekend, the Everblades dropped Games 1 and 2 of this year’s Kelly Cup Finals to the Trenton Titans at Germain Arena. Florida visits Trenton, N.J., for Games 3-5, hoping to bring the series back to Southwest Florida.
For the Rivermen, the outlook was dim as they boarded a bus bound for Lafayette, La., where the next three games were to be played.
Everybody was writing the team off, including Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Theobald, who opted to skip the road trip and penned a column that basically said the series was over. The fact that Louisiana had a 22-game unbeaten streak at the Cajundome only served to give his column more credibility.
“After we left Peoria we had to win four out of five, and when we got to Louisiana, they already were planning a parade route,” says Norm Ulrich, the radio voice of the Rivermen. “People brought brooms into the building thinking sweep. The fans were handed little Kelly Cup replicas, that’s how sure they were that they had it won.”
Only two other teams in the history of the ECHL championship series had come back to win it after losing the first two games, but their losses were on the road. The Carolina Thunderbirds lost badly at the Johnstown Chiefs in the very first Riley Cup Finals in 1989, 8-1 and 6-1, then bounced back to capture the series in seven games. And the Toledo Storm dropped Games 1 and 2 at Wheeling in 1993 only to win the next four.
After the Rivermen pulled out a 5-4 double-overtime victory on Blaine Fitzpatrick’s game-winner to prevent the sweep, the public address announcer inside the Cajundome invited the crowd to come back that Sunday for Game 5 and watch the presentation of the Kelly Cup.
Current Everblades defenseman and team captain Matt Pagnutti was in his third season with Louisiana at the time, and John Jennings, Florida’s equipment manager, held the same job with the IceGators.
Louisiana did just about everything possible to tempt the hockey gods after going up 2-0 in Peoria, and their general manager at the time, Jady Regard, was responsible for most of it, Ulrich said. According to Ulrich, Regard called Peoria’s merchandise manager after the IceGators won Game 2, 4-2, and asked him to send the Kelly Cup championship merchandise down to Louisiana since he didn’t expect the team to be back in Illinois for a Game 6.
Prior to that, shortly after Game 2 had ended, Regard and another IceGators representative were outside the Civic Center and stumbled across Rivermen head coach Don Granato and player/coach Jason Christie.
“Christie was sitting outside with Granato, and Regard was kind of putting his arm around him saying not to worry, your time will come,” Journal Star hockey beat writer Dave Eminian recalls. “Christie was so burned up he was ready to put his head through a wall. He went back into the dressing room and fired up the rest of the guys, and they were so intent on pulling that series out after that.”
Christie coached the Rivermen from 2000-01 through this, their final season in the ECHL before moving up to the American Hockey League.
Game 4 of the 2000 Kelly Cup Finals was decided in regulation, with Peoria coming out on top, 4-2, and the Rivermen held a 5-1 lead in the third period of Game 5 in front of a stunned Cajundome crowd. Louisiana stormed back to score four unanswered goals and force overtime.
Just like Game 3, this one went to double overtime, and Peoria’s Trevor Baker won it to give the Rivermen a 3-2 series lead.
The series shifted back to Carver Arena in Peoria, Ill.
Louisiana didn’t go down easy in Game 6, taking the game once more into overtime, but Fitzpatrick was the hero again, scoring the Cup-clinching goal.
“So Florida has nothing to shed any tears over,” Ulrich says. “All they’ve got to do is win the first one. Granato didn’t make any lineup changes or adjustments after Game 2 because he knew he had the horses, the team, the guys that could score and a good goaltender in Duane Derksen.”
Christie and J.F. Boutin shared co-MVP honors in the series and, according to Eminian, those two, along with Baker and Fitzpatrick, were responsible for winning the series and the entire playoffs. They all lived together in a rickety old house near the Bradley University campus that has since been torn down.
The next season, early in the schedule, Peoria made a return trip to Lafayette for a regular-season game with the IceGators. The team pulled into the parking lot of a Wal-Mart and as the players got off the bus, they saw a gentleman approaching them wearing a ball cap that said, “2000 Kelly Cup Champions: Louisiana IceGators.”
“Christie confronts him and asks him where he got it and the guy says he bought it from the team, and Christie says, ‘You can buy one of those but you can’t have one of these,’“ says Eminian. “And he holds up his ring.”