Me In St. Louis
Even though St. Louis's NHL team is off to
a dismal start this season, the Gateway City remains a hockey
hotbed thanks to a burgeoning crop of talented junior players.
"For some time, the St. Louis area had
many fine kids,” said Larry Sanderson, operations
manager for the St. Louis Amateur Blues, a program that
runs seven teams at various age groups. “But they
usually had to leave to find the best competition. That's
all changed. Our best kids are playing and staying here,
and we now have teams that have competed well at the national
level and are having success."
The city’s professional franchise has
been responsible for the success at the amateur level in
many ways. For example, the Amateur Blues' bantam majors
squad that claimed the organization's first-ever USA Hockey
national championship was paced by forward Philip McRae,
whose father, long-time NHL tough guy Basil McRae, served
as the team’s assistant coach.
|St. Louis product Paul Stastny
is the leading scorer for defending national champion
"Philip is everything that I was not,"
laughed the elder McRae, who racked up nearly 2,500 penalty
minutes in 16 NHL seasons with seven franchises before retiring
in 1997. "He has a great knowledge of the game, he
has good vision and he's very unselfish."
"I've got fairly good hands, but I really
need to improve my speed," said the younger McRae.
"That's why the USA program is…so good for me."
McRae shined at last summer’s USA Hockey
Select 15 Festival, earning an invite to join the U.S. National
Team Development Program’s Under-17 squad in Ann Arbor
by recording 6-4—10 scoring line in six games. In
17 games with the U-17’s, he’s scored four goals
and added two assists.
"I [was] excited, but…also nervous," said
McRae about joining the NTDP as a 15-year-old. "Moving
away from home and adjusting to a new school worried me
a bit, but I'm excited about the great training I'm getting,
the level of competition and the ability to play overseas."
St. Louis has yet to approach the level of
Boston, Detroit or Minneapolis-St. Paul in terms of developing
college talent, but it is, by anyone's objective measure,
getting closer to knocking down the door. The greater St.
Louis area – the 14th largest metro area in the U.S.
with 2.5 million residents – boasts 30 indoor ice
facilities and about a dozen youth programs, including the
"There [are] two reasons why this area's
become more of a hockey hotbed,” Basil McRae said.
“First was the arrival of Brett Hull. When he got
here, there were only about nine pads of ice. Second is
the fact that so many Blues alums have stayed here to raise
their families and have chosen to get involved. For guys
like me who grew up in small Canadian towns, St. Louis is
a nice fit. It's as if we're all a big family here."
Ryan Lasch, Jason Walters and Scott Campbell aren't
related. They aren’t even from the same town.
But the three standouts for the Pembroke Lumber Kings
in Ontario’s Central Junior Hockey League are
as tight as any family.
With one of the most amazing starts
in their storied history, Lumber Kings compiled a
stunning 22-3-0-1 record through the end of November,
outscoring their opponents 144-51 in the process.
The aforementioned trio deserves much
of the credit for Pembroke’s torrid start. Lasch
(30 goals, 30 assists), Walters (18 goals, 27 assists)
and Campbell (15 goals, 18 assists) rank first, second
and fourth, respectively, in the league’s scoring
"We do have amazing depth this year," said
Walters, a 19-year-old center and the CJHL’s
reigning MVP after scoring 26 goals and 99 points
last season. "We have many guys who can do many
Walters is one of those multi-dimensional
talents, but it wasn’t always that way. For
as much as he scored, Division I coaches often looked
the other way.
"I had to learn to play a more
complete game," he acknowledged. "When schools
came to look at me, they'd tell my coaches how good
I was offensively, but they expressed concern for
how I played down low in my own end and how I'd lose
puck battles along the boards."
"He's really become a complete
two-way player, and his offense hasn't suffered,"
said Lumber Kings coach-general manager Kevin Abrams.
"He's become physically stronger and has rounded
his game out nicely.”
Quinnipiac thought likewise of Walters
and offered him an opportunity to join the Bobcats
for the fall of 2005. After visiting the Hamden, Conn.,
campus last winter, however, Walters opted to return
for another tour of duty with Pembroke.
"I guess I wasn't sure if I was
really ready,” he explained. "I'd accomplished
much last year and during the playoffs, I didn't disappear
as I'd done before. I started thinking maybe I should
have taken that offer."
Quinnipiac remains in the hunt for Walters,
but schools such as Boston University, Colgate and
Vermont have are also in the mix. He'll likely make
a decision by Christmas.
Lasch and Campbell are writing their
own D-I scripts. At 5-8, 165 pounds, Lasch is set
to join St. Cloud State next fall.
"He's always been a playmaker,
but now he's developing into a pure goal scorer,"
said Abrams. "He has great work ethic and instincts,
and he's fearless. He knows how to find holes and
he's not afraid to go to them."
Campbell, a left winger, lists Rensselaer,
Union and UMass Lowell among the teams bidding for
"He may be the most complete two-way
player you'll ever see," said Abrams. "He
makes traffic wherever he goes, he kills penalties
and he goes hard to the net."
Abrams’ lofty goals for his charges
include winning league and national titles. Helping
him achieve that end is Sheldon Keefe, the former
Tampa Bay Lightning forward who co-owns the Lumber
Kings with Abrams. Injuries and contract issues have
forced the 25-year-old Keefe to take a year off from
"Sheldon's brought a lot to our
team, including a high degree of professionalism,"
said Abrams. "He's even helping out as an assistant
coach. He's been a huge asset in that regard."
"[Sheldon] told me to never stop
working," Walters said. "He said if you
compete and take pride in yourself, you'll never fail.”
Based on their success thus far, the
Lumber Kings are obviously living by those words.
"So many of the Blues alumni have given
their time," said Sanderson. "Al MacInnis helped
with our '92 club last year. Rob Ramage [whose son, John,
is in the program] has assisted and [former Michigan Tech
star] Mike Zuke has coached a number of our clubs."
"During the lockout,” added the
elder McRae, “even Keith Tkachuk was helping out.”
The 2005 NHL Entry Draft was perhaps the brightest
moment for St. Louis amateur hockey, as four players reared
in the metro area's ranks were selected. Denver forward
Paul Stastny, son of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, was taken
in the second round by Colorado. Maine freshman goaltender
Ben Bishop went to the hometown Blues in round three, Denver
freshman defenseman Chris Butler went in the fourth round
to Buffalo and Northeastern rookie forward Joe Vitale was
tabbed by Pittsburgh in the seventh round.
There are more prospects in the pipeline,
including Cornell goaltender Dan DiLeo and '86-born forward
Matt Zuke – Mike's son – who is one of three
former Amateur Blues suiting up for the NAHL's Texarkana
"St. Louis is becoming a force in minor
hockey and much of it has to do with the dedication of its
coaches," said Texarkana coach-general manager Jon
Cooper, who also imported forward Graham Sission and Ferris
State-bound defenseman Pat Maroon from The Lou. "Their
best kids are no longer leaving…and they are breeding
pure hockey players. The atmosphere is so unselfish there.
That's why they're breeding such success."
Jeff Brown agrees. Brown, whose 13-year NHL
career included four seasons with the Blues, has spent time
coaching in the Amateur Blues program.
"A lot of us want to give back
to hockey what hockey gave to us," said Brown, who
has a seven-year-old son in the program. "St. Louis
isn't glamorous. It isn't by the ocean and it isn't in the
mountains, but it's simply a very friendly town to raise
a family. When people are nice to you, you want to be nice
to them and it's great that all of us alums can get together
and make this happen."
It’s no surprise Minnesota is enjoying
another solid recruiting season, with top talents such as
USNTDP defenseman Cade Fairchild and former Academy of Holy
Angels (Richfield, Minn.) forward Jay Barriball already
committed for the fall of 2007.
Also on the list is Tony Lucia, the son of
Gopher head coach Don Lucia's, who opted to join his father
in the Twin Cities next fall after considering Colorado
College, New Hampshire and Notre Dame, among others.
"Minnesota is close to home, and that
was important to me because we have real close-knit family,"
said the younger Lucia in a prepared statement after opting
for the Gophers. "The other deciding factor was education.
I'm interested in business and Minnesota is 12th in the
nation for their business school."
At 6-0, 175 pounds, Lucia is doing very well
in the United States Hockey League for Mike Hastings’
Omaha Lancers, a club long known for pumping out top-end
Division I talent. Through 21 games, the San Jose Sharks’
sixth-round pick in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft
ranks third on the team in scoring with seven goals and
Across the Border
On the topic of familiar names, Wisconsin
remains hopeful that defenseman Garrett Suter, the son of
1980 U.S. Olympic hero Bob Suter and younger brother of
former Badger and current Nashville Predator Ryan Suter,
will come to Madison next year and make an immediate impact.
The 6-0, 195 pound Suter committed to Wisconsin
more than a year ago, but has had bumpy ride since making
his announcement. After skating for the USHL's Green Bay
Gamblers last season, he opted to play for Salmon Arm of
the British Columbia Hockey League this year. After 10 games
and a concussion with the Silverbacks, Suter reversed field
and now skates with the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks, where
he’s scored four points and compiled a plus-minus
rating +3 in nine games.
"I need to talk to Garrett and
find out where he's at,” Badger coach Mike Eaves told
the Wisconsin State Journal. "Look into his eyes [and]
find out what his thinking is."
Shaheen is the publisher of Research on Ice and contributes
recruiting updates to Inside College Hockey throughout the
year. To subscribe to Research on Ice's recruiting e-mail
newsletter, contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.