Shiloh resident could hear his name called in the NHL draft

News-DemocratJune 19, 2014 

While the most famous player in St. Louis Blues history was born in Belleville, Hall of Famer Brett Hull came into the world in Belleville, Ontario in Canada -- not Illinois.

Another Belleville-born forward, 18-year-old Connor Chatham, could become the first metro-east player selected in the NHL draft when the event is held June 27-28 in Philadelphia.

And while being drafted is certainly no guarantee of a future NHL roster spot, it's still an important step forward and a significant step for the local hockey scene.

"There's obviously a lot of nerves, but it's an exciting time," said Chatham, a Shiloh resident who attended Althoff and Belleville East his freshman year before moving away at age 15 to pursue his hockey career.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound right winger finished strong after a slow start this season with the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers, collecting 13 goals and 31 points in 54 games.

Prior to that he played for the United States Hockey League's Omaha Lancers in 2012-13 and the U.S. National Development Team's under-17 squad in 2011-12.

Rated 46th among North American skaters eligible for the draft, Chatham is projected to go anywhere from the second round to the fifth.

"Anywhere from the second or third is what I've heard, but everything changes," Plymouth coach Don Elland said. "I don't see him being available in the fifth round, he's just too good of a player. If they do get him in the fifth, they're getting a hell of a fifth-round pick."

Chatham has returned home and plans to watch the draft on television.

"It's absolutely exciting," he said, "but getting drafted is one thing and making it is another. I still want to focus on my main goal, which is making it to the NHL."

Chatham was among the players invited to the NHL combine in Toronto in late May. Players are put through physical and medical testing and also are interviewed by NHL team personnel.

Chatham said one of his combine meetings was with Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong and other members of the front office team.

One of the players Chatham competed against in the OHL was center Ryan MacInnis, the son of former Blues star and Hall of Fame defenseman Al MacInnis. The younger MacInnis was ranked 20th among North American skaters.

"I had a ton of interviews and I did well for myself, so it was a positive week," said Chatham, who had the combine's third-highest vertical jump at 32.5 inches. "I think I handled myself fairly well in the whole week, so the experience was a big positive for me.

"It's just tough to get a read off a lot of those guys because they're interviewing so many players."

Making the grade

Chatham's size and strength, plus his athletic ability and work ethic, have made him a favorite of his coaches since his younger days at the U.S. Ice Sports Complex in Fairview Heights.

"I would say first and foremost it's his work ethic," Elland said. "We used to laugh about how almost every shift he'd empty the tank. He goes hard and he's got an NHL body, The kid is built like a truck."

Chatham's father, local attorney Grey Chatham, recalls the hundreds of trips to the Fairview Heights rink to drop off his sons.

Along with Connor, there is 21-year-old son Kyle and 17-year-old son Cole, who also are hockey players.

"My older brother Kyle played, so I just followed in his footsteps," Connor Chatham said.

Kyle Chatham helped the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers win a championship, then suffered a broken leg last season while playing in British Columbia. He is committed to play college hockey for St. Norbert's in Wisconsin.

"His older brother was active and still plays and Connor liked what he saw, so he got involved," Grey Chatham said. "The more he got involved, the more dedicated he'd become. They had hockey on Friday nights in Fairview Heights and I'd drop him off, then come get him at 11:30 or 12. He just always wanted to get on the ice and skate."

Laying the foundation

Connor Chatham said one of the big influences in his early career was Rob Hudson, manager of the rink at Fairview Heights.

While those in other sports might think it's a bit strange, leaving home to play hockey in Canada or elsewhere and live with a host family (known as a billet family) is quite common.

"My mom (Karen) was pretty upset," Chatham said. "We knew for a while it was going to happen and once the time came we were all sad, but we were prepared for it."

That doesn't make leaving home easy.

"It's hard enough as a parent when they leave at 18 or 19, but at 15 ... holy cow," Grey Chatham said. "You follow your kid on computers instead of going to their games. When you do go to their games, you're going eight hours away to Plymouth, Michigan. It's just a whole different world."

Chatham has lived with several host families and while in Plymouth, attended school while playing hockey.

"It's all part of the deal," he said. "It's something I've embraced and something you get used to. It's a lot of hard work and hopefully it pays off in the end."

Originally committed to the University of Denver, a coaching change there led Chatham to change his mind and play for Plymouth instead.

"It's a fast league and a big league, but it's very good hockey," Chatham said. "Some of the best players in the world that aren't in the NHL are playing there."

Located in a suburb of Detroit, the Whalers gave Chatham a chance to play against elite competition.

There have been 49 players from Illinois reach the NHL and every one came from Chicago area. Every time Connor Chatham tells someone he's from Illinois, they assume he is from the Windy City as well.

"I get it all the time, they assume everyone from Illinois is from Chicago," Chatham said. "I'm a big Blues fan and I was actually at a couple of the playoff games this year against the Blackhawks."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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