Ron Johnson/Peoria Journal Star
The Peoria community lost one of its most iconic sports figures ever on Thursday morning when Rivermen co-owner Bruce Saurs passed away at the age of 88 – just a few hours after his birthday.
“Our sincere and deepest sympathies are extended to the entire Saurs family,” Rivermen co-owner Bart Rogers said. “The entire community has lost a great leader not only in Peoria, but in professional hockey as well.”
“Rivermen fans and partners cannot thank him enough for his dedication to making sure hockey was active and thriving in Peoria for two decades. He will be truly missed but never forgotten.”
Known as Peoria’s “Mr. Hockey,” Saurs' legacy will forever be synonymous with the Rivermen franchise. His ownership of the team spanned nearly 20 years, but his roots in the Peoria sports scene went back more than 60.
“It’s a tough loss for everyone,” Rivermen head coach Jean-Guy Trudel said. “Mr. Saurs' name will live on forever. He was truly a legend.”
“Yes, he was a successful businessman, but he gave back to the community and did everything the right way. I know he’s in a better place now.”
Saurs first purchased the franchise and saved hockey in Peoria on July 1, 1989, when he bought the then - International Hockey League (IHL) team from the Peoria Civic Center after it reported an operating loss of nearly $1 million. Just one year later, Saurs witnessed the Rivermen win a professional hockey record 18 straight games and go on to win the IHL’s Turner Cup.
Saurs also pioneered a deal for Peoria to become the St. Louis Blues primary and exclusive farm team, which was the first such deal ever in the class-AAA IHL. The affiliation with St. Louis lasted almost two decades.
In 1996-97, he moved the Rivermen into the class-AA ECHL and partnered with local businesswoman Anne Griffith. Three years later, the ECHL Rivermen won the 1999-00 Kelly Cup championship and finished a nine-year run as the league’s third-most winning team ever.
In 2005-06, Saurs rolled the dice on a move back to AAA hockey and placed the team in the American Hockey League as the Blues farm team. Upon retiring in 2008, he passed up several offers from other NHL teams to buy and move Peoria’s team.
When St. Louis changed ownership and sold the Rivermen in the spring of 2013, which left Peoria without its hockey team, Saurs returned with a five-man local ownership group to again save the game in Peoria. They bought a team in the class-A Southern Professional Hockey League, which finished third overall in its inaugural season last year.
Saurs graduated from Peoria High School in 1944, where he lettered in baseball for three seasons. He also graduated from Bradley University in 1949 before returning to Peoria High as a teacher and coach for six years.
In 1951, Saurs teamed with Ed Stonebock and Harold Lintz to establish the first-ever Little League baseball program in Peoria. In addition, he worked as a baseball scout and was credited with the Pittsburgh Pirates signing of Peoria’s Leon Hurst.
Saurs served with the U.S. Army Air Forces in Wiesbaden, Germany, from 1945-46 and was a member of the 169th Fighter Squadron in the Illinois Air National Guard from 1951-54.
Among his honors and awards, Saurs was given the Neve Harms Meritorious Service to Sports Award in 1990. He was inducted into the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, the Rivermen Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Bradley University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.
The Rivermen launched the Bruce Saurs Leadership Award in his honor after the 2013-14 season ended, and will present it annually to a player who displays leadership and commitment to the game and the community.
In addition, the City of Peoria proclaimed all future Rivermen home openers at Carver Arena as “Bruce Saurs Hockey Night in Peoria” in the fall of 2013.
Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. on Friday, July 18, at Northwoods Community Church located at 10700 N. Allen Road, in Peoria.