By BILL KNIGHT
Many Peorians may have only a vague idea of the difference between a slap shot and a chip shot, or think a hat trick needs a bunny, or a power play involves the Koch brothers.
But the Rivermen professional ice hockey team is changing that with old-fashioned faceoffs with fans throughout the community.
Days after trading wingers Nick Grasso and Jake Trask to the Macon Mayhem for center Connor Toomey, 18 Rivermen players in mid-December spent hours helping other Salvation Army volunteers pack toys and accompany families through the gym at the agency’s Nebraska Avenue facility to distribute donated toys to folks in need.
Maybe they made some new fans, but they definitely met some current followers, and had fun, too.
“They really do enjoy these experiences,” says Rivermen media relations guy Brad Kupiec. “That’s one of the benefits of professional sports at this level – the contact between players and fans. It’s huge – visiting patients at Children’s Hospital or skating at the Civic Center’s Winterfest aren’t part of the job as much as friendly outreach, I guess.”
Although Peoria is in its 34th season of professional hockey, hockey is still a niche sport, Minneapolis Star Tribune hockey reporter Michael Russo has said – especially compared to football, basketball and baseball. Plus, Peoria arguably is less Hockey Town than a Basketball Town, given the strong high school talent and the state finals – plus the Bradley Braves during its better years.
Historically, Peoria’s also been a Baseball Town, linking Vonachen-era Chiefs players such as Albert Pujols and Greg Maddox back to the Central Illinois Collegiate League (where future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt supposedly hit a ball out of the former Meinen Field across Nebraska Avenue into Parkview Cemetery), and to the original Chiefs, a New York Yankees affiliate in 1957 when they went 80-49 with future Major Leaguers Bill Short and Rod Kanehl playing at the old riverside Woodruff Field in the Averyville neighborhood.
Despite having to fight for their share of sports fans – and National Hockey League owner lockouts in 1994-95, 2004-05 and 2012-13, which seemed like goons or grinders sticking it to fans – that’s changing, thanks to connections made between players and people.
One of the longest-running hockey teams in North America, the Rivermen have played continuously since 1982, starting as the Continental Hockey League’s Prancers, becoming the Rivermen in 1984 as part of the International Hockey League, then the East Coast Hockey League, the American Hockey League, and now, owned by Illinois Pro Sports LLC, the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL).
And this season, Rivermen attendance is averaging 3,700 per game, third best in the nine-team SPHL.
If the club has a marketing strategy, it’s “Get everyone,” says Kupiec, who graduated last year from Eastern Illinois University after studying broadcast journalism and kinesiology, then interned with the Peoria Chiefs.
“We try to get anyone we can,” he says. “Having youth hockey in the area helps a lot in building a fan base.”
Building a fan base includes “community service,” which might sound like a sentence for a misdemeanor, but is actually a chance to interact with the public.
“The players enjoy it, you can tell,” Kupiec says. “And people appreciate the effort and players taking the time out of their days. They’re received as members of the community who just happen to be hockey players.”
On the ice, players’ gliding movements can be artistic as well as athletic, and in the Salvation Army’s concrete-block gym, it’s a positive blend of publicity and generosity.
Such activities are easier that explaining the difference between slashing and spearing, blue lines and red lines, or shutouts and shootouts.
Plus, educating potential fans isn’t really a challenge, Kupiec says.
“People who come to games know hockey, or they come with someone who does,” he says.
“It’s all good.”
Good feelings continue this month with game promotions including “Baseball Night #1” Jan. 29, with Chicago Cubs mascot Clark visiting, Cubs memorabilia given away, and Rivermen players donning Cubs-style jerseys; the next night is “Chicago Blackhawks Night,” with Blackhawk-autographed giveaways and Blackhawks’ National Anthem singer Jim Cornelison appearing.