Tyler Rennette, head coach and general manager of the Peoria Mustangs, puts it simply. “We are here to develop hockey players.” That mission falls on the shoulders of both the coaching staff and the players themselves.
“We want every player to be a lot better in March than when they arrived in August,” Rennette adds. “If each player commits to the team, the wins and success will come and players will move to college hockey or to the North American Hockey League.”
Over the years, the Mustangs have moved more than 50 players to the NAHL. Many of those are among the 50 alumni that have played NCAA Division 3 hockey. Six players have risen to NCAA Division 1, and many are also in the American College Hockey Association Division 1 level.
One Mustang alum played in the Ontario Hockey League and then was drafted to the NHL, while three players moved to the USHL, four played professional hockey and three have represented the U.S. in international hockey.
The current Peoria Rivermen team in the pro league SPHL have three former Mustangs on its roster, including the team’s captain.
College hockey in the central Illinois area is strong and growing with hockey teams at Bradley University, Robert Morris University, Illinois State University, University of Illinois and Western Illinois.
Along with moving players up the hockey ladder on a consistent basis, the Rivermen appointed former Mustangs head coach Jean-Guy Trudel as its head coach in 2013. He is currently in his second season with that team.
The Mustangs’ focus is to develop the players off the ice, as well as on. Every player is expected to participate in community service, which ranges from hospital visits and helping with can drives for the needy to assisting with local youth hockey development and many more activities.
The Mustangs are in their 15th season of junior hockey in Peoria, Ill. In their inaugural season back in 2000-01, the Mustangs played in the Junior B Central States Hockey League with teams from across the Midwest (St. Louis, Flint, Cleveland, Metro Jets, Grand Rapids, etc.)“We want every one of our players to have a great experience, to grow, mature and become a much better young man as part of their Mustangs experience,” Rennette said.
In 2010, the CSHL merged with the NAHL and the NA3HL (Tier-3) was created. The NA3HL now stretches from Montana in the west to Minnesota in the north to Dallas in the south and New York in the east.
The NA3HL has 31 teams this season and is the largest and most geographically diverse league of its kind. The league has also seen more than a dozen player advancements to the NAHL in the first two months of the season alone.
Building a foundation
Trudel and Ortman have also been head coaches for the team. Other Mustangs head coaches that contributed greatly to building the Mustangs were Kevin Lune, Denis Cyr, Bob Fleming and Darwin McPherson.The Mustangs’ ownership group has changed over the years and is now made up of Paul Wayvon, Jean-Guy Trudel and Steve Ortman.
Paul Wayvon acquired the controlling interest in the team in 2012 primarily to ensure that junior hockey stayed and will grow in the Peoria area.
“There are not many cities of Peoria’s size that have a professional hockey team, a junior hockey team and a strong youth hockey organization,” said Wayvon.
“Junior hockey is an essential part of Peoria’s complete hockey environment.
As well, junior hockey has become an essential developmental step that helps a player to progress and be able to play and enjoy hockey as part of their college years, as well as advancing to the NAHL.”
The Peoria area is fortunate to have a very strong hockey culture and history.
A number of former professional hockey players reside in the Peoria area.
After completing their professional careers with the Peoria Rivermen (who have, over time competed in the IHL, ECHL, AHL and now the SPHL), many players eventually made their homes in Peoria.
In fact, all seven Peoria Mustangs coaches were, at one time, members of the Rivermen organization.
This has helped to bring a highly professional approach to the Mustangs and helped to create a strong history of success.
Most recently, in 2013-14, Ortman led the Mustangs to the NA3HL Central
Division title. A year prior, Trudel guided the team to the NA3HL Championship finals. In fact, over the past 14 seasons, the Mustangs have missed the playoffs only once and have been consistent competitors near the top of the league.
In 2003-04, the Mustangs were Junior B National finalists.
Development from a young age
The Mustangs’ goal is to move every player to the highest level of their capability as quickly as possible.
The Mustangs usually develop a relatively younger aged team with this quick progression process in mind.
From last year’s team, there there were only two players that aged out of junior hockey and 12 junior age players moved to college hockey or the NAHL.
Almost half of the team returned, which left about half of the roster open for new Mustangs prospects to join the organization.
To fill the roster every year, the coaching staff and a collection of scouts travel across the U.S. to select prospects that they feel will fit well into the
Mustangs’ culture and organization. A strong pipeline of players to the Mustangs has come from the Peoria Youth Hockey Association (PYHA). PYHA is a long-standing youth league that offers both a house league division and a travel league division. The highest level travel teams regularly play in the Tier-2 Central States Developmental Hockey League.
Typically, the Mustangs have had at least 10 former PYHA players on their roster in any given season.
Rennette is the Mustangs’ seventh head coach and general manager. His coaching staff includes Jake Hanson (assistant coach and a former Peoria Mustangs’ player), Brian Hamilton (assistant coach, goalie and video coach) and Greg Eberle (trainer and strength and conditioning coach).
Rennette was drafted by the St Louis Blues with the 40th overall pick in the second round of the 1997 NHL draft after playing for North Bay and Erie of the OHL. Rennette continues to hold scoring records for the Rivermen from when they played in the ECHL. Off the ice, the Mustangs are fortunate to have a great, committed and long- standing billet family structure to house the hundreds of Mustangs players that have lived in the Peoria area over the past 15 hockey seasons.
The “Mustangs family” grows every year. Many former billeted players come back to Peoria every year just to visit with their billet families.
The Mustangs have also been able to build a strong group of corporate sponsors to help the team financially, as well as help to build their businesses.
The Mustangs have diligent and committed volunteers that help out at every game, some of whom have been helping for most of the teams’ history. Rennette, when asked how the team was performing so far in 2014-15, spoke plainly.
“We can get better. If every one of our players commits to personally getting a little better every week, we’ll be OK,” said Rennette.
The Mustangs currently sit atop a very tight and competitive NA3HL Central Division, but there is a long way to go.
“I’m seeing some encouraging signs. Scoring is spread out, eight players have more than a point per game, and 21 players have plus ratings,” Rennette added All of these facts show a team that is committed and on track to always get better.
Top/cover photo: Andrew Scofield. Photo by Bart Mol.