On Opening Day of the 2015-2016 season, the St Louis Blues launched "Heartland Of Hockey". It was a campaign to promote the roots that hockey has in St Louis, and not just at the NHL level. St Louis lost in their bid for hosting the WJC tournament in 2018, but succeeded in planting the seeds for future bids. In addition, the Blues announced a commitment to local hockey, establishing a goal of 125,000 ball hockey and 5,000 ice hockey players among local youth by 2020. Over the past few years, Blues fans have been consistently in the top 5 of NHL markets for local TV ratings, and usually make a good showing on national broadcasts - even when the Blues aren’t playing.
Safe to say, this is a hockey town.
If there was any doubt about that, it was proven yet again on Friday night. This time, it was at the NHL draft in Buffalo. From the 30 picks selected in the first round, 12 were from the US (a draft record) and 5 of them were from the St Louis area.
It all kicked off with the 6th overall pick, belonging to the Calgary Flames. With that selection, the Flames picked Matthew Tkachuck (LW). Matthew is the son of Keith Tkachuk, born in Phoenix but grew up in Chesterfield while his dad played here. As is often the case, Keith remained in the St Louis area after retiring and Matthew continued to develop here as well. He played with the AAA Blues, the US National Development Team, and more recently with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. In the 2015-2016 season, he scored 30 goals and 77 assists for a regular season total of 107 points, 5th in the OHL. He also finished big, with 40 points in the postseason, including the tournament-winning goal in overtime to secure the Memorial Cup.
Right behind him, the Arizona Coyotes made their 7th-overall selection Clayton Keller (C). Clayton was born in Chesterfield, MO but raised in Swansea, IL. This makes him the second draftee ever from the Metro-East (after Connor Chatham of Shiloh, IL - a third round pick by NJ in the 2014 draft). Clayton also spent time with the AAA Blues, as well as Shattuck-St Mary’s. More recently, Clayton played for the USNDT, scoring 37 points in 23 games played. He won bronze with Team USA at the World Junior Championships U18, and was named MVP of the tournament. In the Coyotes organization he joins other St Louis products Ryan MacInnis (43rd overall in 2014) and Dakota Mermis, an undrafted free-agent signing from Alton, IL.
By the time the first 10 picks were completed, the entire nation of Canada had only provided 2 of those selections. The Gateway to the West had the same amount, and followed up with the 11th-overall pick. At that position, the Ottawa Senators selected Logan Brown (C). Logan was born in Raleigh, NC but was raised in Chesterfield, MO when his father Jeff Brown (a Blues player from 1989-1994) started his coaching career with the River Otters and later the Bandits. Clayton also spent time with the AAA Blues, before going the junior hockey route. He now plays for the Windsor Spitfires, and in the 2015-2016 season had 74 points in 59 games (21 goals, 53 assists). Logan played for Team Canada in 2014, but chose Team USA for the 2016 U18 WJC, where he won bronze along with Clayton Keller. He now joins fellow St Louis native Chris Wideman within the Ottawa organization
This alone would haven been a remarkable story, but St Louis kids continued to tempt the GMs of the NHL. At 15th overall, the Minnesota Wild selected Luke Kunin (C). Luke is also from Chesterfield MO, and followed a similar path as the others. He spent time with the AAA Blues and the USNDT Program. However, he has gone the NCAA route and in his first year with the Wisconsin Badgers had 32 points in 34 games (19 goals, 13 assists). This earned him a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshmen team. The Wild do not have other prospects from St Louis that I could find, but their AHL affiliate does include a St Louis native, Nick Saracino.
Just before the first round concluded Friday night, the NHL decided to dip into the St Louis talent pool one more time. With the second-to-last pick, number 29 overall, the Boston Bruins selected Trent Frederic (C). His path to the NHL draft is much like Luke Kunin’s. He played for the AAA Blues and the USNTD program through last year. There, he had 14 points in 23 games played (4 goals, 10 assists). Trent was not expected to go that high, and this was considered to be a stretch by the Bruins organization. He also won bronze with Team USA at the WJC U18 tournament, and has committed to play for the Wisconsin Badgers next year as well.
In total, the St Louis area produced 5 first-round draft picks, and several raised eyebrows as a result. In comparison, the Canadian province of Ontario only produced 2, as did Quebec. That is pretty remarkable. Another player from St Louis was picked up in the later rounds as well. The goalie for the 2016 WJC U18 Bronze-medal winning team was Joseph Woll, who was selected 62 overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is from Dardenne Prairie, MO and is committed to play for Boston College this year.
A large part of this success is due to the dedication of the St Louis Blues and in particular their alumni program. It’s one thing for teams to establish roots in the community and with local rinks, but it’s an even stronger statement for players to stay in those communities after their playing days are over. The work done by Kelly Chase and Jeff Brown is a huge asset for local hockey. Add into that mix people like Al MacInnis and Keith Tkachuk (both as parents and coaches), and it’s not a surprise that St Louis is looming large on the hockey map. As the Blues commit themselves to increasing local participation in youth hockey, we can likely look forward to more drafts like this. While this year is an exception, in the future this may well become the rule.