PEORIA ― Dillan Bentley has signed with prestigious college hockey program UMass-Lowell, making him arguably the highest level college hockey signee ever to come out of Peoria.
The Peoria-born right wing and product of the Peoria Youth Hockey Association is believed to be just the third player from Peoria to sign with an NCAA Division I program.
He’s gone from a house league team in the PYHA, to a declaration at a restaurant in East Peoria, then a season in junior hockey with the Peoria Mustangs. Now he has a full ride with UMass-Lowell, which has six NCAA tournament appearances in the last decade, including a trip to the 2013 Frozen Four.
“It’s starting to sink in on me,” said Bentley, 21. “I arrived here July 5. We’ve been touring the school, drove in to Boston, then into Lowell. I’m in (summer conditioning) camp now and it’s so exciting to be part of such a respected program.
“I’ve thought about how hockey all started for me, the things I have in my room at home that kind of reflect that path.”
There are pucks from Peoria Rivermen games, and from teams he played for. Youth Hockey Trophies. Giveaway items from Rivermen games. A picture of him dropping a puck with Kendall Coyne Schofield, a veteran member of the US Women’s National Team who was part of six gold medal winners in the IIHF Women’s World Championships and the Olympic gold medal team in 2018.
“And I’ve got these drawings that kids have sent me,” Bentley said. “It reminds me of simpler times.”
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House League to elite player
“Dillan is a great leader and very dedicated player,” said Rivermen coach Jean-Guy Trudel, who had Bentley on his Peoria Mustangs junior hockey team in 2019-20 and also as a camp participant and later instructor in his Tru Hockey Academy in Peoria . “He was ninth in scoring in the NAHL this season. Second in the playoffs.
“He’s going to be a great pro some day. He might end up as the best player ever to come out of Peoria if he continues to develop at this rate.”
Bentley was skating at Owens Center on a house league team as a kid when then-PYHA Travel League director and former Rivermen player Kevin Lune saw him. I have approached his parents of him and convinced them to move Bentley up into travel hockey.
“I had Kevin and Jean-Guy and really good coaches growing up,” Bentley said. “And good kids around me to play with. I did that until my freshman year in high school.”
Then, during a family dinner in an East Peoria restaurant, the then 14-year-old suddenly had an announcement to make.
“I said, ‘I need to move away to play hockey,’ ” Bentley said. “I knew Sydney Crosby did that, and it was the only reason I said it. Next thing I know I’m up in my room at home, and my parents are telling me, ‘We’ll let you try out for a team inWisconsin.’ “
He tried out for the Madison Capitols 15-Under team, because his aunt lived there and he planned to stay with her. I have made the team in the spring. But when he reported at the end of summer, he was told the team was folding.
So Madison put the 14-year-old Bentley on its 16-Under team instead, where he played against older kids for two years. I have moved up to the 18-Under team as a high school junior in 2018-19.
“I went to St. Thomas Catholic School (Peoria Heights) from K-8, had 60 kids in the whole class,” Bentley said. “I get up to Madison and there’s 500 kids in my class. It was a change of pace for me.”
His senior year, he moved back to Peoria and attended Richwoods High School, with 100% online learning during the pandemic, and graduated with the Class of 2020.
He went to NAHL New Mexico to play junior hockey in 2019-20 but got cut. He signed with the Mustangs and scored 30 goals in 46 games, and Trudel knew he had a college and pro prospect.
The college hockey world found him
Bentley returned to New Mexico and played two seasons there, the latter as captain in 2021-22. And the phone calls started.
“No colleges were talking to me, then after a showcase in Minnesota schools started finding me mid-winter,” Bentley said. “Alaska-Fairbanks called me first. They saw me while scouting another kid. Offered me. I talked to the UMass assistant coach on the phone every Tuesday for 15 minutes.
“It was crazy. I had practice in the mornings and then the rest of the day was conversations with coaches from schools.”
In the end, he had interest from a dozen NCAA teams, and offers from Alaska-Fairbanks, Alaska-Anchorage, UMass-Lowell and others.
Growing up in Peoria hockey
Bentley plans an education major at UMass-Lowell. His father, Chad, and his mother, Maureen, are both teachers. Maureen Bentley is principal at St. Thomas. Chad Bentley is a physical education teacher at Limestone Walters.
Bentley has a sister, Kaitlyn, 19, at Marquette.
His second family was Rivermen hockey.
“Going to those games as a kid, I thought it was the best of the best,” Bentley said. “The Rivermen were such a big deal for me. I thought it was like an NHL game. Ben Bishop, Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington, Ryan Reaves and Lars Eller. I remember watching them here.
“Watching those guys in Peoria, then seeing them in the NHL was really big for me.”
The Rivermen invited him to skate occasionally in practice with the SPHL team while Bentley was with the Mustangs.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound winger was elated when the Peoria franchise won the President’s Cup last spring.
“That was such a great experience, skating with them,” Bentley said. “I wouldn’t be around here without (Rivermen captain) Alec Hagaman and those guys.
“And everything I learned about hockey these last three years or so is from Jean-Guy Trudel. I was so happy for them winning the SPHL championship. Seeing them celebrate that, it motivates me.”
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In elite company
Some 80 Peoria-born players over the decades have gone on to play college hockey at the club level, or varsity at the NCAA D-II or D-III level, or move into the junior hockey system.
A few went on to play at the professional level in North America or Europe.
Aaron Dawson, the grandson of Rivermen Hall of Famer Bud Gingher, was born in Peoria and went to the Ontario Hockey League, then later played in Canada’s collegiate system in the mid-2000s and was a Carolina NHL Draft pick.
Former ECHL Rivermen center Karson Kaebel made it to NCAA DI Northern Michigan University, but he was born and raised in Pekin.
But as for Peoria and DI college hockey, well, Logan Bittle was born in Peoria and played for NCAA DI Robert Morris University from 2004-05 thru 2007-08. Peoria native Joey Olson played there, too.
That’s it. Bittle and Olson, and now Bentley, at UMass-Lowell.
Bentley joins a program that has produced guys like four-time Stanley Cup champion Craig MacTavish, goaltender Dwayne Roloson, NHLer and Olympian Mark Kumpel, current NHLers Connor Hellebuyck and Carter Hutton and many more.
“I’m proud to be part of such a history,” Bentley said. “I feel well-prepared from my experiences being coached by Jean-Guy Trudel, being around the Rivermen, the junior hockey experiences, all of that I hope helps me represent Peoria well.”
Take a bowBlake Mitchell
East Peoria native Blake Mitchell had a big finish to his Central States Development Hockey League season in May.
He played for the Chesterfield Falcons, who rolled 6-0 through the field at USA Hockey’s 2022 Tier II 18-Under National Championships. The St. Louis-area team beat the Nashville Jr. Predators, 7-0, in the title game at Great Park Ice in Irvine, Calif.
Mitchell, 17, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound defenseman and the son of former Peoria Rivermen team bus driver Brad “Bronco” Mitchell, played in all six games and had two assists.
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men’s basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.