Forget the Blues – What is next for Peoria?

PEORIA, Ill – I am still reeling over the decision of the St. Louis Blues to leave Peoria. Wherever two fans gather, this is the hot topic of discussion. I’m not one to be left out, and here is a summary of some of the things I’ve talked with other fans about.

The St. Louis Blues decided to pull out of Peoria and made the decision by…emailing the Peoria Civic Center? It was akin to a couple breaking up via text message.

“U know those plans we had 4 next year. NVM.”*

“BTW, I’m dating Chicago Wolves, now. Sry. 🙁 ”

Except Peoria never got a “Sry” or a frowny-face.

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File photo by Rob Huelsman

I mean, Central Illinois was PERFECT for them. Peoria was the perfect place to develop not just players, but an entire system. What better place to experiment with marketing, develop front office personnel and build, well…everything an NHL team needs…all while growing the St. Louis brand into what has been, marginally, Chicago Blackhawks territory. I mean, hey – maybe a pre-season game? Would that have been so bad?

Maybe even hold an entire week of training camp here.

The possibilities are endless and the Blues chose “None of the Above” for the past two years. They didn’t market or promote the team, left the on-ice product to flounder and priced the tickets out of reach for a majority of fans.

The Vancouver Canucks were the buyers and are, only now, looking at the possibility of keeping the team in Peoria. They could pay a few bucks to the AHL and let the team go dormant for a year, but they bought their own team for a reason. They seemed frustrated at the lack of control over their own players (ironically, with the Chicago Wolves).

Why buy an AHL team just to put your players right back into that situation?

I think the Cancucks would greatly benefit from keeping the team in town for a year or two. They will get a good lease from the Peoria Civic Center. The City of Peoria knows without hockey they will be unable to fill the almost 40 arena dates. Bradley University’s NCAA Division 1 basketball program may pack the arena eight or ten times a year, but the Civic Center needs those smaller but steady numbers hockey brings and seems ready to make a deal. The central location in the AHL will keep travel costs down while Vancouver waits out the Heat in Abbotsford.

An entire experienced front office operation that is collectively facing unemployment next week and Vancouver is building an AHL operation from scratch. That sounds like a perfect match. These guys and gals are already familiar with the market and have done a great job working with little support from the parent club.

The fact that an established fan base exists can’t hurt, either.

The Canucks just need to roll-back ticket prices a bit. That and a playoff-caliber team would probably be a big incentive to the season ticketholders and casual fans, alike. Let’s be honest, there aren’t a lot of Cancuck fans here in Peoria. I know two. One is a transplant from BC and the other is a local guy who was smart enough to marry her.

Still, there could be some fun marketing opportunities as the Canucks bring a little Canada to Peoria. Hey, maybe they could even stage an appearance by the Giant Inflatable Beavers that were featured in the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics a few years back. You know, something silly and fun. Hockey games should be fun!

Vancouver wants their AHL team closer to Vancouver. That is understandable. In a year or two, they will be in position to relocate and Peoria can have some local ownership lined up and move on. I don’t think there would be much handwringing over a short-term deal. That would be just what Peoria needs, because it is going to take some time to find a local owner for the long-term future of professional hockey in town.

Who will that owner be?

Many people immediately mention former IHL/ECHL/AHL owner Bruce Saurs. He pulled off quite a feat when he was able to help Peoria move to the AHL at age 75. Bruce is a great guy, but at age 85, I just don’t see a fourth trip to that well. Other local ownership groups will have to be found.

Whether Vancouver chooses to play a short stint in Central Illinois or not, the question remains, where will Peoria end up in the long run? That’s up to the local ownership group, whoever they may be. That group will decide based on the depth of both their dedication and their pockets. Will it be the growing SPHL, the relatively local CHL or back to the future with the ECHL?

The SPHL is a nine-team “A” level league based in old Dixie and along the Gulf Coast. I have been told they are exploring a possible “Northern” division. Many old ECHL cities are now SPHL. Pensacola, Biloxi, Lafayette, LA, Augusta. Currently they reach as far north as Memphis (Southaven, MS), Huntsville, AL, and Knoxville, TN.

It is relatively (key word: relatively) cheap to run a team. They only dress 16 – 14 skaters plus 2 goalies for a game. A longshot.

The CHL is currently a 12-team league a step below the ECHL and a step above the SPHL. They range as far west as Prescott, AZ, east to Brampton, ONT and south to Allen and Forth Worth, TX. Bloomington, Quad Cities, and St. Charles, MO are all nearby cities in this league and Peoria would fit in, nicely, geographically speaking. Travel would be much more efficient, for the most part.

The downside is the financial health of the CHL. The league is currently running the QC franchise. It was a soap opera even as late as a week into camp, as they did not have enough players to practice. Other teams are hemorrhaging red-ink. It is possible that the “SPHL-North Division” is the fallback plan for certain teams if the CHL unravels.

The CHL is a perfect fit for a lot of reasons and worrisome for several others. What happens to the CHL during the interim will be as important as what happens in Peoria. I put the odds at EVEN.CapnGirl

The ECHL is familiar to Peoria. It currently has 22 teams coast to coast, from Alaska to the southern tip of Florida and from southern New York to southern California. Old ECHL and even older IHL rivals abound for Peoria, here. Toledo – now the Walleye, Kalamazoo, Fort Wayne, Cincinnati and Wheeling are all familiar. Throw in an easy road trip to Evansville, IN travel is actually better than it was a decade ago for a team based in Peoria. You do play a LOT of games against your division.

Peoria knows the ECHL and enjoyed a lot of success there. The more expensive of the three leagues is also the most likely to establish a long term.

Among fans, I’d say the ECHL is the favorite of the three choices. I’ve heard from some other ECHL fans, too, that would like to renew that rivalry.

*NVM=Nevermind

Contact the author at Shaun.Bill@prohockeynews.com or follow him on Twitter @SLBatPHN and @prohockeynews

3 thoughts on “Forget the Blues – What is next for Peoria?

  1. This off season could be very interesting. Rumors and rumblings have always been heard but look for this year to be a busy one for moves and shutterings

  2. Shaun…the ECHL is right now reportedly playing for Indianapolis in 2014 when work on the Pepsi Arena (or whatever they call it) at the fairgrounds…Also the Federal Hockey League (step below the SPHL in single-A) is supposedly working to get the building in Marion, IN fixed up to go in next season – ironically they are being helped by someone involved with the recently darkened Trenton Titans…

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