The more I experience life and have had time to reflect on my hockey career, I finally understand that what goes on in Pekin, Illinois is truly special. A town with just over 30,000 people has produced more professional hockey players than anyone would ever expect. Pekin, to me, has a small-town vibe and always felt a lot smaller than what the population is. From the first time I stepped on the ice, I had all kinds of people to look up to. My whole career, I was proud to be from Pekin, Illinois.
The Kaebel family (lead by Butch, Karson, and Klage), where the cavaliers of Pekin hockey. They made it possible for the next generation like Jon Gaskins, Matt McElwee, Cole Ruwe, Brett Englebreight, Jeff Van Dyke, Nicholas Ghidina, and others to try and follow in their footsteps. Not all these guys went on to play professionally, but that’s not what it’s about. For a town of 30,000 people with one ice rink that is only open October to March, the list is impressive. Even more players have gone on to play juniors and then college hockey, as well. It’s truly remarkable what has gone on in this city.
The best part is, less than thirty minutes across the river, you have even something bigger going on. A lot of it is thanks to the Olson family! It all started with Mark Olson who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame at Michigan Tech University. All his sons played a huge part in growing hockey in Central Illinois. Now, you have Jean-Guy Trudel leading the charge. I can remember skating with Jean-Guy as a young boy and just being in awe watching him. Jean-Guy has impacted hockey at all levels in Peoria. At the pro level (as the coach and leader of the Rivermen), to the junior level (where he is big piece of the NAHL3 Peoria Mustangs), and at the youth level (with the Peoria Junior Riverman as hockey director).
Because of the Olsons and Jean-Guy, you had guys like Joey Olson, Beau Cheeseman, Jake Hanson, Logan Bittle, Aaron Dawson, Ryan Klusendorf, Eric Scovill, Alec Hagaman, and many others come out of Peoria as home grown kids and go on to play hockey at very high levels. You now see the next wave of players entering the junior and college ranks because of the culture Jean-Guy has built with the help of former Peoria Rivermen Marc Bassen, Luke Gruden, and many others. It’s truly remarkable what these two cities have been able to do over the years.
A lot of you are probably wondering, “Is there something in the water?” No, there is nothing in the water in Central Illinois. Just like there is nothing in the water saying players here in Kansas City cannot go on to do the same thing. In fact, there are more resources around here than there ever were at the players’ disposal in Central Illinois. There are so many great coaches and players around the local rinks here in Kansas City. From the likes of Garry Emmons (former Kansas City Blade) running the Kansas Jets High School program. You have Head Coach John-Scott Dickson and Kyle Hood leading the charge of the Kansas City Mavericks. Then, at the youth levels, you have people doing a great job with all the local programs.
There is a huge opportunity for the next homegrown Kansas City native to go on to play under the bright lights. It will not be easy! It will take a lot of hard work and pride. Every time I played, I tried to represent the city of Pekin, Illinois the best I could. I was proud to represent all the players who came before me. I remember looking up to all these players and wanting to be just like them. Who is going to be that player for the next generation of Kansas City hockey players to look at?
Find out more about Bryce’s Hockey Academy and upcoming schools through his website.