IceMen add NHL’s St. Louis Blues and AHL’s Peoria Rivermen as affiliates

Things just got a lot easier for IceMen fans who want to hit the road to watch the team’s affiliates in action.

The IceMen have inked an affiliation deal with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen, which will complement the team’s existing affiliation pact with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and AHL’s Springfield Falcons.

The Blues are arguably the most popular NHL team in the Evansville area, thanks in part to the fact that many of their games are available on local cable television packages via Fox Sports Midwest. Meanwhile, the Rivermen are geographically the closest team to Evansville in the AHL.

Since joining the NHL in 1967 as part of the league’s first expansion after the “Original Six” era, the Blues have won 8 division titles and the 1999-2000 Presidents Trophy as the league’s regular season champions. The Blues have enjoyed remarkable consistency through the years, including a stretch of qualifying for the playoffs every year from 1980 to 2004 – the third-longest playoff streak in the history of major-league North American professional sports.

Numerous Hockey Hall of Famers have played for the Blues, including Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Bernie Federko, Grant Fuhr, Al MacInnis, and – yes, for a brief time in 1996 – “The Great One” himself, Wayne Gretzky. Blues players have won the Hart Trophy (League MVP) twice, the Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman) twice, the Vezina Trophy (Best Goaltender), and the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year). Blues coaches have been honored with the Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) four times, including Ken Hitchcock’s win this past season.

The Blues have never hoisted the Stanley Cup, but are currently considered among the favorites for the upcoming NHL season – assuming it isn’t wiped out by a lockout, of course. A recent season-preview story in The Hockey News pegged the Blues as the #1 team in the NHL’s Western Conference. With a core group of talented young players and a few key veterans in the mix as well, it could indeed be a banner year for the Bluenote.

Just 170 miles north of St. Louis lies Peoria, Illinois, named after the Peoria tribe of Native Americans. Essentially the same size as Evansville (2010 census population was 117,429), Peoria (2010 census population was 115,007) is also situated on a river (the Illinois River) – which eventually spills into the Mississippi River just north of (you guessed it) St. Louis.

Peoria has had professional hockey since 1972, starting with the Peoria Blades in the Continental Hockey League. The “Rivermen” name was adopted in 1984 via a name-the-team contest in the Peoria Journal Star, and the team won the International Hockey League’s Turner Cup title during the first “Rivermen” season. The Rivermen remained in the IHL until 1996 (and developed a pretty heated rivalry with the Fort Wayne Komets), then moved to the ECHL for nearly a decade.

The Rivermen have played in the AHL since 2005, and are currently owned by a group led by St. Louis businessman Tom Stillman, who is also the majority owner of the Blues.

Peoria has seen its fair share of quality talent throughout the years. Nelson Emerson lit up the scoresheet for Peoria in the 1990-91 IHL season (115 points in 73 games), then went on to pile up 488 points in 771 career NHL games. Longtime Blues enforcer and current Blues radio analyst Kelly Chase’s professional career began with the Rivermen, for whom he racked up 760 penalty minutes (and a very respectable 78 points) in 109 games. Fellow Blues tough guy Tony Twist, one of the most feared fighters in the history of the NHL, also got his pro start in Peoria. Goaltenders Curtis Joseph and Guy Hebert combined to win over 600 NHL games, and both played for the Rivermen as rookies. And among current Blues, captain David Backes and defenseman Roman Polak (among others) first honed their craft in Peoria.

The Blues and Rivermen were previously affiliated with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, so doing business with Evansville will help them keep things “closer to home” and certainly make it easier to check up on young talent in the developmental system. It probably won’t be uncommon to see Blues scouts and management at the Ford Center, keeping an eye on their prospects.

The new affiliates’ close proximity will absolutely benefit IceMen fans as well. Columbus is 325 miles from Evansville, and Springfield (Massachusetts) is over 1000 miles away. Conversely, Scottrade Center (home of the Blues) is just 165 miles from Downtown Evansville, and Carver Arena (home of the Rivermen) is less than 300 miles from the Ford Center.

Any IceMen fans who want to go check out the team’s new affiliates might want to keep the long Thanksgiving weekend open. If the current NHL schedule remains intact, the holiday weekend will present a perfect opportunity to see both the Blues (twice if you’re feeling spry) and Rivermen at home. The Blues host the New York Islanders on Friday (Nov. 23) and the Washington Capitals on Sunday (Nov. 25), while the Rivermen host the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings) on Saturday (Nov. 24).

Road trip, anyone?

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