ST. LOUIS — Scott Rupp flipped open the red spiral notebook he keeps as president of the St. Louis Amateur Hockey Hall of Fame and ran his index finger down the inside cover, along a column of surnames and birthdays that swells every year. Written in neat blue penmanship, they represent players who grew up in the area and have appeared in the N.H.L.
That list now numbers 22, and of that group, 14 skated this season, when Rupp would monitor their stats on his phone each night. At this late stage of the playoffs, with three teams left, his ritual does not last long. The only St. Louis player still active is Patrick Maroon, who foiled another local product, Dallas goalie Ben Bishop, to score the winning goal in double overtime of Game 7 last round — for none other than the hometown Blues.
“This is beyond what I ever thought would happen,” said Scott Sanderson, a longtime pillar in the amateur hockey community.
The pipeline of American hockey snaking from Massachusetts west into Michigan and Minnesota has meandered south, following the Mississippi River into an area thronging with tradition but that until recently had not produced the talent to match the fervor. A decades-long endeavor — rinks sprouting, participation swelling, Blues alumni staying in town to coach — culminated in 2016, when five St. Louis-bred players were drafted in the first round, or five more than ever before.
The St. Louis influence could be seen this spring at Enterprise Center downtown, where former Blues like Keith Tkachuk and Chris Pronger — who, like so many of their peers, settled and coached in town — have cheered on a team that was last in the league standings on Jan. 2 but rallied to reach the Western Conference finals. St. Louis trailed the San Jose Sharks, two games to one, entering Game 4 on Friday night.
But it could also be sensed in on a November night in Philadelphia. After goalie Mike McKenna recorded his only victory of the season, for Ottawa, the first teammate to congratulate him was a “curly-haired pipsqueak” named Brady Tkachuk, who used to launch shots at McKenna at area hockey camps.
At a rink in exurban Wentzville, Mo., the world’s best sled goalie, Steve Cash, an ardent Blues fan who used to play inline hockey against Maroon, hones his craft. In Kosice, Slovakia, 20-year-old Clayton Keller of Swansea, Ill., across the Mississippi from St. Louis, has two points in four games for the American team at the world championships.
“All these young kids coming up — they all know somebody who played in the N.H.L.,” Sanderson, 49, said. “I didn’t know anybody. In St. Louis, who did you know? Now they all know these guys. Now it’s a tangible goal.”
The incubation has spanned years and generations, springing in earnest from the Blues’ arrival in 1967. The players who lingered after retirement, enticed by the schools and the reasonable cost of living, meshed with a robust network of natives passionate about growing the game.
“It’s taken a lot of time and a lot of effort,” said Blake Dunlop, a former Blue who helped popularize the AAA program, the highest level of minor hockey. “Obviously, we brought hockey knowledge to the kids. And credibility.”
Many of the ex-Blues became involved to coach their children. They wound up inspiring hundreds, if not more. Nearly 25 years later, McKenna, now 36, can still hear one such former Blue, John Wensink, demanding they pass the puck tape to tape, like a bullet.
“We were all afraid to let them down,” McKenna said, “because we knew they knew what they were talking about.”
The former Blues defenseman Jeff Brown was devastated when he was traded to Vancouver in 1994 and came back to St. Louis after he retired. Without a son on the team, Brown joined the AAA staff.
“If you go to Toronto and you want an alumni to run a practice, it’s going to cost you two or three thousand dollars,” he said. “Here, we’re giving back for nothing to the game that’s given us everything.”
As their fans well know, the Blues have never won the Stanley Cup, doomed by circumstances that not even their bounty of superstars — Bernie Federko and Grant Fuhr, Brendan Shanahan and Al MacInnis, Adam Oates and Brett Hull — could counteract. But by staying relevant, making the playoffs 25 straight seasons over one stretch, the Blues stimulated awareness.
“If the Blues weren’t fun to watch,” said the ex-Blues forward Cam Janssen, of Eureka, Mo., “I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it.”
Laughing, Janssen, 35, said he wished he had the foresight to emulate Hull, the charismatic Hall of Fame sniper who played in St. Louis from 1988 to ’98 and spurred a surge in rink construction and interest. Instead, Janssen took after enforcers like Tony Twist and Kelly Chase. Before Janssen’s pugilistic nature enabled him to play in the N.H.L., it got him tossed from youth tournaments.
The gap between the AAA squads’ top players and the next tier in those days was stark. Facing teams from Michigan and Illinois, Chris Butler, now in the Blues’ minor league system, said they hoped to keep the score close enough to avoid a running clock. McKenna said his teams struggled, too, but at least when they played near Detroit, they could cross into Canada and, because of the favorable exchange rate, buy equipment at lower prices.
“To get us into a big tournament in Toronto or Detroit, I had to bring up an Al MacInnis or Brett Hull signed stick,” said Basil McRae, a former Blue who coached in the AAA program and is now the director of player personnel for the Columbus Blue Jackets. “By the time our group was 14 or 15, we were winning the national championship. We’d get phone calls saying, ‘You have to come to the tournament.’ We went from basically having to bribe ourselves in to being a draw.”
The moment that altered the perception of St. Louis as a youth hockey wellspring came in 2009, when the AAA Blues, coached by MacInnis, a Hall of Fame defenseman, won the prestigious Quebec International Pee-Wee tournament. During one fertile stretch, three St. Louis teams were ranked among the top three nationally in their age groups.
McRae theorized that St. Louis’s relative isolation — 300 miles from Chicago, the nearest hockey hotbed — accelerated players’ development. Because it was too expensive to travel for games every weekend, they trained. McRae estimated they logged 150 to 200 hours of practice time.
The practices, high-tempo and intense, focused on nurturing individual skill and cultivating tenacity.
The only times Brown endorsed trips to tournaments was when the team could face good competition. Otherwise, he pit his best players — Matthew Tkachuk, Brady’s older brother; Luke Kunin; Keller; and Brown’s son Logan — against one another at practice.
Complementing practice with inline hockey helped them enhance their vision and hands. Bryan Keller, Clayton’s father, said the hours his son spent rollerblading in the family’s basement were critical in his development.
Many of the early standouts had N.H.L. pedigrees, like Yan and Paul Stastny; Neil Komadoski Jr.; and Connor Dunlop, Blake’s son, all of whom attended Chaminade College Preparatory School. Matt Hrubes, who played at Chaminade and later coached there for 16 years, used to joke that those players learned more at the dinner table than he could coach them in four years.
They usually did not last four years. The elite soon fled — for junior teams, then for college and the professional ranks. Hrubes could not predict that players like Bishop or Butler would reach the N.H.L. because he had no local basis of comparison. When they left Chaminade, in 2005, Janssen, the first N.H.L. player born and bred in the area, had yet to make his league debut.
Players like Janssen, Butler, McKenna and Joe Vitale (now a Blues analyst for KMOX-AM), foreshadowed the boom of 2016, when Calgary drafted Matthew Tkachuk at No. 6. Arizona took Keller next. Picking 11th, Ottawa grabbed Logan Brown. Kunin, selected at No. 15, landed with Minnesota. When Boston chose Trent Frederic at No. 29, Rupp cried.
“I remember sitting on the couch thinking, ‘It’s amazing how far we’ve come,’” McKenna said.
His father, Terry, played on the area’s first youth hockey team, in the early 1960s, and his grandfather Bill would drive two hours, to Springfield, Ill., to play on a rink that had boards.
“If my grandpa saw this, he’d have tears in his eyes,” McKenna said.
Bill McKenna also helped found the
Kirkwood Youth Hockey Association, where Hrubes’s sons play and where the enrollment, Hrubes said, has doubled in the last three or four years. More and more, Hrubes has noticed players he once coached returning to lead the next wave, including Komadoski.
The caliber of instruction, coupled with an entrenched culture and rising participation, is primed to make St. Louis an American hockey hub. It’s unlikely that the area will again churn out five first-round picks, but that, McRae said, is fine.
The overall depth should continue to improve; another AAA program, CarShield, has popped up. More players will earn Division I scholarships and compete in juniors, the Paralympics or, like Jincy Dunne, on the women’s national team. Some may even wind up, years from now, in one of Rupp’s notebooks, or in the handshake line after a grueling N.H.L. playoff series.
When Maroon and Bishop found each other at the end of their series last week, they shared a long embrace. Behind them, a member of the Blues’ Blue Crew skated past.
She was holding the flag of St. Louis.
Ben Shpigel is a sports reporter and has covered the N.F.L. and the New York Jets since 2011. He has also covered the New York Yankees and, before that, the Mets. He previously worked for The Dallas Morning News. @benshpigel
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