The Peoria Mustangs are becoming an offensive force in the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) and are being led offensively by three homegrown skaters.
Nathan Chasteen, Mason Riley and Kyle Hamilton have combined for 39 of Peoria’s 77 goals this year and all three came through the Peoria Youth Hockey Association on their way to the NA3HL level.
And while the Illinois town may not be a hot spot for hockey talent, it has definitely been a solid jumping-off point for Chasteen, Riley and Hamilton.
“I feel that Peoria Youth Hockey was a great program for me to learn how to play the game,” said Hamilton. “I moved around both between Pekin and Peoria over the years, but I feel that I wouldn't be where I am without the coaches, staff and other people from the Peoria Youth Hockey Association. I don't think that players from around the area realize how lucky they are to being player where they are.”
“It says a lot about the quality of the local youth hockey organizations we have in the area,” Riley added. “This area is lucky to have not only Peoria's youth hockey organization, but Pekin's as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to play in both programs. It's great to see so many local players on the team this season and I think it all goes back to the quality of Pekin and Peoria youth programs.”
Mustangs head coach Darwin McPherson, who played pro hockey in Peoria, sees bright futures for all three of his star forwards, especially Chasteen, a 16-year-old in his second season in Peoria.
“Chasteen is a ‘94 and is playing real well,” McPherson said. “I've had him since he was 8 years old and even when he was that young had the hockey sense and vision you can't teach. He's a great kid and has figured out that, with all the talent and if he works hard, the sky's the limit.”
“I grew up through Peoria Youth Hockey and always knew my ultimate goal was to strive to play at the next highest level,” said Chasteen. “Peoria has a vibrant hockey community and a long-standing history in hockey. Having teams like the Mustangs and the Peoria Rivermen has allowed the youth players in the Peoria area to have strong and experienced hockey coaches, which ultimately produces talented hockey players.”
Riley didn’t play hockey last season, choosing instead to focus on his academics. Now back playing full-time, McPherson is happy that even if it’s a year later than expected, it’s a situation he hasn’t had any trouble embracing.
“Riley is another good kid who works as hard as anyone in the league,” said McPherson. “He’s a great team player who hasn't really played competitive hockey for a couple years. If he did, he wouldn't be at this level. I tried hard to get him last season, but he wanted to work on his academics, which shows how mature he is.”
“It was the obvious choice to play for the Mustangs not only because they're a local team, but also because they have a great organization and a strong reputation,” noted Riley. “Because they're a local team, I’m able to play hockey and be a full-time college student.”
The team’s third-leading scorer, Hamilton, is “a good leader who plays every shift like it's his last,” according to McPherson.
“He and Riley are best friends and have played together since they were young. Kyle has been one of our top players the last three seasons.”
“The chemistry we have makes a huge difference,” added Hamilton. “I've played with (Riley) on almost every team I been on and we've been friends for over 10 years. It’s awesome when I can throw a pass without looking, knowing where he's going to be, and it ends up on his tape.”
Hamilton is also a captain this season and has taken the role to heart.
“I love being one of the captains,” said Hamilton. “I feel like the other guys listen to me when I have something to say and I try to help out the younger guys as much as possible.
“When I first started (in Peoria), my captain was tough on me when he needed to be and was one of the best friends off the ice, and that’s how I try to be and try to act. I want the other players to look up to me. I like having players listen to me if I have something to say about how they're playing or different things they could try.
“But on that note, I’m not one to take the game too serious. I mainly try to keep the other guys light-hearted and having fun because they play a lot better if they have fun. Hockey is a fun and simple and I try to keep it like that.”
Just a year ago, the Mustangs managed just a dozen wins and didn’t qualify for the postseason. This year, it’s a totally different story as Peoria already has 12 wins and sits fourth in the NA3HL standings.
“Although I didn't play for the Mustangs last year, I followed the team closely,” Riley explained. “I can definitely tell a difference in the team's overall chemistry. It just seems like things are clicking a little bit better this season. The guys all get along great and we've got a great coaching staff that pushes hard in the right directions.
“Off the ice, the whole team is close. We have team functions all the time and that just builds more chemistry between the guys. Being comfortable off the ice makes it that much easier on the ice, which is a big reason why I think we're on the right track this season.”
Hamilton, who did play last season, also notices a change from last year to the present.
“Mainly, I feel the players are closer as a team,” said Hamilton. “We’re all great friends off the ice and there aren't little clicks throughout the team. Everyone supports each other and we all have the common goal of winning.
“Also having Jean-Guy Trudel as (an assistant) coach makes this year an all-new experience. He has so much knowledge about the game. It’s insane how I can learn something new everyday from just watching him skate or listening to what he’ll tell me to do in practice or during games.”
“We have good leadership on the team that’s allowed us to be more cohesive, on and off the ice,” said Chasteen. “Great chemistry off the ice transpires into great performance on the ice.”
BATTLE CREEK JR. REVOLUTION: Radney Ritchie and Justin Locante have scored seven of the team’s 19 power-play goals this season.
CHICAGO HITMEN: Goaltender Nick Clarke has earned wins in three of his last four games, stopping 94 of 100 shots in that span.
CLEVELAND JR. LUMBERJACKS: Cleveland goaltenders have allowed just two shootout goals in 23 attempts this season. The Jr. Lumberjacks are 3-0 in shootouts as well.
FLINT JR. GENERALS: Andrew Lay has tallied five goals in his last six games and is tops on Flint with 16 overall.
METRO JETS: After starting the season with no goals in his first 17 games, Matt Elswick now has three in his past four games.
MICHIGAN MOUNTAIN CATS: In his past five games, goaltender Robert Schultz has averaged just a shade under 38 saves a game. He’s 3-2-0 in that stretch with a shutout.
PEORIA MUSTANGS: Mike Mikulan has eight goals on the year and five have come with the man-advantage.
PITTSBURGH JR. PENGUINS: Nolan Trombetta had nine goals and 22 points in 31 games last season. This year, he already has 11 goals and 23 points in just 20 games.
QUAD CITY JR. FLAMES: The Jr. Flames’ roster consists of players from more than 10 states and two from out of the country - defensemen Matt Foubert (Ottawa, Ont.) and Nauris Buskevics (Jelgava, Latvia).
QUEEN CITY STEAM: Queen City is the only team in the NA3HL without a shorthanded goal.
ST. LOUIS JR. BLUES: Ryan Hogland, the team’s scoring leader, has eight points in his last four games. The Jr. Blues have also won nine straight on the road and, overall, are riding an 11-game winning streak.
TOLEDO CHEROKEE: Cameron Rossman is tied for the NA3HL lead with 23 assists. Rossman, who was called up to the NAHL’s New Mexico Mustangs earlier this season, had a hat trick plus an assist Sunday afternoon at Metro.