PEORIA – Mitch McPherson remembers the crowd. The noise.
The Peoria native was 6 years old in 2000, when he stood among the seats inside Carver Arena and watched the Peoria Rivermen hockey team hoist the Kelly Cup as champions of the ECHL.
Twenty-two years later, McPherson had a much better seat. The winger was in a Rivermen uniform this week when Peoria lifted the President’s Cup as 2022 champions of the SPHL.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said McPherson, son of former Rivermen player Darwin McPherson. “I’ve been part of a Rivermen family my whole life, and to see them win it back then and now for me to bring one back … it’s pretty special.”
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Celebration of a champion
As was Friday’s celebration in Downtown Peoria.
The Rivermen players and coaches battled a cold and rainy afternoon atop a fire truck paraded from the Riverfront to the Peoria Civic Center.
Hundreds of Rivermen fans lined the streets in support – those and more making their way inside Carver Arena. Many snaked around the concourse to purchase championship gear as hundreds of others filled at least four sections of the lower bowl.
The Carver Arena lights dimmed before the video board displayed a 10-minute highlight package from Peoria’s run through the SPHL playoffs. Rivermen public address announcer Dustin Fitzpatrick led introductions atop a makeshift stage, decorated with an inflatable paddlewheel and a large, lighted puck.
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Coach Jean-Guy Trudel spoke, as did multiple Rivermen players. Peoria Mayor Rita Ali launched the ceremony, followed by former Rivermen Denis Cyr, now on the Peoria city council.
Trudel reminded the crowd of their chants of “We want the Cup!” as Peoria’s home victory in Game 2 of the finals put them on the precipice of the President’s Cup.
“Well,” Trudel said as he leaned into the microphone Friday, “We Goth the Cup! Yeah, we did! “
Trudel wasn’t alone in thanking the Peoria fans, who at various points cheered, blew horns or rang cowbells. Everyone who spoke mentioned the fans’ influence on the championship season.
“We identify with the city of Peoria because of its resiliency. When we fall down, we get back up again,” Rivermen goaltender Eric Levine said. “When we put on the jersey, it’s not about the name on the back, but the paddlewheel on the front. We respect all you guys.”
Later, hundreds of fans lined up to and get autographs from about 18 players seated at tables around the concourse. Others waited to grab photos with the President’s Cup.
Trudel and his players heartily celebrated the last chapter of the Rivermen championship legacy – but also expressed gratitude for the city, its fans and their support. The ninth-year coach took time during his address to thank members of the Rivermen franchise from up and down the chain of command.
“Humility is a big thing for us,” Trudel said. “I like a humble athlete.”
McPherson fits that mold. As do the team’s other two Peoria-born players, captain Alec Hagaman of Dunlap and Austin Wisely of Chillicothe.
All three played in the Peoria Youth Hockey Association system growing up. And all three played junior hockey for the Peoria Mustangs. Trudel has been with the trio almost every step of the way.
“If I had a choice, I’d take a Peoria kids any day,” Trudel said. “They just push harder.”
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Wisely celebrated his fifth birthday at a Peoria Rivermen game nearly 20 years ago. By age 6, he started skating, inspired by his hometown heroes.
Now, he is one.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Wisely said, “and to have these guys to celebrate it with, it’s all pretty special.”
Hagaman is nearly a decade older and remembers Wisely being “a little guy out there skating around” in Peoria junior hockey. Hagaman, too, began attending games when he was 5 of 6 years old, inspired by Rivermen teams of the past – including that championship squad in 2000.
“This means a lot to kids like us who came up cheering for that team,” Hagaman said. “For us, we got the opportunity to play for a championship – and to capitalize on that opportunity, we will be remembered forever in the community we grew up in.”
Wes Huett is Journal Star sports editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @WesHuett.