By Kevin Orris and Brendan Burke
Only three players on Peoria’s active roster were even born when Dave Eminian covered his first Rivermen game during the 1984 International Hockey League playoffs. Peoria’s head coach, Jared Bednar, was only 12.
Now having covered thousands of Rivermen games in three different leagues, 31 states and over 100 different arenas, Eminian is more than just the Rivermen beat writer for the Peoria Journal Star.
A constant presence in the Section 12 press box at Carver Arena, Eminian -- now in his 27th season covering the team -- serves as the team’s unofficial historian, is a member of the Rivermen Hall of Fame selection committee, and has a myriad of ways in which he covers, promotes and betters the team with the work he does.
“He has such passion for not only the game but the Peoria market and this team,” said St. Louis Blues assistant general manager and director of pro scouting and Peoria Rivermen general manager Kevin McDonald. “He finds out information before even I know on some of our prospects sometimes. From hosting Ice Time Online, Rivermen RadioActive, to his blog, he is very innovative and stays ahead of the curve.”
“When I started out, all I had to do was write the story and send it back to the newspaper on a word processer that you needed two rubber cups to put an old fashioned phone in and transmit it,” Eminian recalled. “Now, you come to the game, cover it and produce that story, but you are also doing video interviews, tweeting, blogging, publishing directly to the web for the newspaper and all that stuff.
“The news cycle isn’t next-day. It is minute-to-minute now. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with it. I have to admit it, I didn’t think I would like it, but here I am, 440 videos produced later and now we’re into Twitter (@icetimecleve). So who knows what’s next?”
A self-proclaimed “baseball guy” from Brecksville, Ohio, Eminian didn’t set out to become “Mr. Rivermen.” He grew up in the Cleveland suburb attending games at the old Richfield Coliseum. He followed the Cleveland Crusaders in the World Hockey Association before the Cleveland Barons joined the National Hockey League in 1976.
In the fall of 1985, he was one of five Daves working in the Peoria Journal Star newsroom and was given the nickname “Cleve” (based on his hometown) that he still has today. And while Daves were easy to find, hockey writers were not. He was asked to take on the Rivermen beat because he was the only person in the sports department that had ever even seen a hockey game before.
“I followed my brother to Bradley [University] from '81 to '85 and started working as a part-timer at the Journal Star sports department,” said Eminian. “Halfway through my senior year, we needed a hockey writer, and I was offered the job. I had to choose between finishing school and working full-time and I took the full-time job. I figured it would take me potentially five years from graduating to get to a paper that size anyways, so I just never finished.
“I’m in my 25th year as a senior at Bradley,” Eminian admitted through a series of chuckles.
A student of the game for the past 27 seasons, Eminian has had attended some important classes taught by some esteemed professors. He has covered two Turner Cup champions in 1984-85 and 1990-91 –- a season that included a pro-hockey record 18-game win streak -- a Kelly Cup champion in 1999-2000, and hundreds of players and staff who advanced to and succeeded in the NHL.
The success of the Rivermen only helped Eminian, who served as the primary IHL columnist for The Hockey News from 1991-96 and was named the ECHL’s inaugural Media Man of the Year in 2002-03.
While he has watched some great teams and witnessed some talented players over his years in the IHL and ECHL, the American Hockey League action he now watches on a nightly basis may be the best hockey.
“The game is faster now,” Eminian stated. “It is played by better athletes. They are bigger and stronger. They are training 24/7, being coached 24/7. Nobody was looking at video tape and there was no such thing as a video coach back when I started. You have nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches. It is just a whole different process now with these guys. They are better conditioned and better prepared athletes now than ever before.”
But that’s not to say he doesn’t have some memorable stories from his first 21 seasons on the job. There is still one night in particular that continues to stand out which proved the true greatness of the 1991 IHL champs.
“That team played a game up in Milwaukee one night with 10 skaters, one of which got benched by head coach Bob Plager in the first period,” he recalled. “They beat Milwaukee 11-6. David Bruce had five goals and four assists, which was a pro hockey record for most points by a visiting player in a single game.”
While the 1990-91 team may be viewed as the best in franchise history, the 1999-2000 Kelly Cup team might make for the best story.
“It was a really cool thing because Pat Kelly was the head coach and GM for five seasons in Peoria in the old IHL days and was head coach and GM of that first Turner Cup team in 84-85,” said Eminian of the ECHL co-founder and namesake for their championship trophy. “So the night Peoria won the Kelly Cup, there he was presenting the trophy in his own name to the city where he put them on the map. It was a really cool thing to see.”
While most beat writers simply cover the team and report the news, Eminian has played a larger role. The team isn’t celebrating its 30th anniversary without the hard work of a lot of people and he is near the top of that list.
Before selling to the St. Louis Blues in the summer of 2008, local businessman Bruce Saurs owned the team. He took the team from the IHL to the ECHL and ultimately started the transition from the ECHL to the AHL in 2005.
“Cleve is very good at what he does,” Saurs said. “He tells it like it is. If you do something bad, he will call you out on it. If you do something good, he will make sure to recognize that too. When I moved the team to San Antonio in the 90’s, he was the reason we brought another team to Peoria.”
“Nobody thought that pro hockey would survive, certainly not for 30 years, which is where we are today,” said Eminian. “I have fought in print in the 80’s to keep the franchise alive. I respect it. I am working on an all-time roster right now going back over 30 years. It brings back so many memories and it’s been a privilege to work with so many of those guys... Paul MacLean as a head coach in the NHL with Ottawa, Wayne Thomas as an NHL executive in San Jose and hundreds of players reaching their dream. It’s been really cool to be a part of that.”
It’s been really cool to be a hockey fan in Peoria during that time as well. And we know who to thank.