'Just the lucky one': Chatham is first metro-east player chosen in NHL Draft

News-DemocratJune 28, 2014 

After attending the NHL Draft in Philadelphia with his family on Friday night, Belleville area resident Connor Chatham had trouble sleeping.

Anxious and nervous about when and where he would be drafted on Saturday, Chatham's lack of sleep turned into an amazing dream coming true when he was selected in the third round (71st overall) by the New Jersey Devils.

"I'm thrilled to be going to the Devils, things couldn't have gone better," Chatham said. "I talked to them at the draft combine, but I talked to a lot of people at the combine. I had no idea who it was going to be."

Chatham, a big St. Louis Blues fan who briefly attended Althoff and Belleville East before moving away to pursue his hockey career, is the first metro-east player ever drafted.

"Moving away at 15 was tough for me and my family, but it feels good today," said Chatham, overjoyed to his hear his named called among the NHL draft picks. "I think I just said 'Thank God.' There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of nerves. Now it's a great day and there's just a lot of relief."

Chatham took great pride and honor in being the first metro-east player drafted.

"I had no idea about that, but it's crazy to think about," he said. "It's awesome for all of Belleville. Not many there play hockey, so it's an honor. I'm getting texts from a lot of guys I used to play hockey with back in Fairview.

"I guess I was just the lucky one."

Chatham played for Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League this season. He was at the draft at Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center along with parents Grey and Karen Chatham, brothers Kyle Chatham and Cole Chatham and cousin Brice Baricevic.

Connor Chatham wasn't the only one in his family dealing with nerves.

"My wife and I could not sleep, we were up by 5," said Grey Chatham, a Belleville area attorney. "Connor couldn't sleep and this kid is a notorious sleeper. He can hibernate with the best of them."

Grey Chatham described the moment as the family, seated in the stands at Wells Fargo Arena at the draft, heard the name of one of their own called from the podium.

"I had been to the draft before in St. Louis but that was as a casual and distant observer," Grey Chatham said. "But to be here with your son and your family and to see each of the reactions of the family members ... it's all so different.

"It was fantastic to have everybody there. It was a once in a lifetime experience for us."

Born in Belleville, Connor Chatham is a big (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and rugged winger who had 13 goals and 31 points in 54 games last season for Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League.

He also played previously for the United States Hockey league's Omaha Lancers in 2012-13 and for the U.S. National Team Development's under-17 club in 2011-12.

His first six years of hockey were with the Southern Illinois Icehawks at the U.S. Ice Sports Complex in Fairview Heights. He later played for the Affton Americans and the St. Louis AAA Blues.

Grey Chatham said he was just as nervous as his son.

"Friday night was easy because we knew he was not going to be a first(-rounder)," Chatham said. "But sitting here today was very anxious and frustrating, I was driving everybody nuts.

"He's excited and he's just floating around. I don't think his feet have touched the ground in the last two hours."

Former minor-league and collegiate player Rob Hutson is the former hockey director and general manager of the U.S. Ice Sports Complex in Fairview Heights.

Hutson began working with Chatham at age 9 and continued that hockey relationship over several years. Hutson was in Canada at a youth hockey tournament Saturday watching a live stream of the NHL draft on his iPad.

When he saw Chatham had been drafted, Hutson smiled. What did he see in Chatham many years ago that gave him such optimism about his career?

"The kid always could shoot the puck, but he was big beyond his years in size and a great skater," Hutson said. "With the work ethic he had, he was more or less unstoppable. I only see bigger and better things in his future.

"Connor's the one that did all the work. Being in hockey and coming somewhat close myself, I wanted to make sure Connor was making really good decisions. He proved to me and everybody else that he made the right decisions. With his driver and determination the sky was the limit."

Hutson said Chatham's drive and self-motivation were big parts in the process.

"It's quite an accomplishment to get drafted," Hutson said. "I can't even put into words how proud I am. Once your drafted anything can happen.

"They're all very good players when you get to that level. But with his power and his strength and his special will inside of him ... you just don't see that all the time."

Here's Connor Chatham's advice to all the metro-east hockey player who dream of making it to where he was standing Saturday -- at the draft wearing the hat and jersey of an NHL team:

"Just keep working hard. It's a great game, just stick with it."

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

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