In two seasons at Shattuck-St. Mary's, the same Minnesota prep school that produced hockey royalty Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, Swansea native Clayton Keller piled up goals and points and won a national championship.
The 16-year-old Keller got even better news recently when official word came that he was named to the roster for USA Hockey's Under-17 U.S. National Team Development Program.
"Words can't describe how I excited I am," said Keller, a Boston University recruit who leaves for Michigan later this week. "Putting on the USA jersey is one of the things I've always wanted to do. There's nothing better than doing that and representing your country every time you step on the ice is pretty exciting."
Based in Ann Arbor, Mich., since being founded in 1996, the national program helps develop players for future Team USA squads. It also provided a training-intense atmosphere that hopes to push players to a higher level with both an under-17 and under-18 team.
The under-17 team competes in the United States Hockey League and plays in three international tournaments. The under-18 squad competes against college programs and USHL teams as well as international play.
One of Keller's good friends is New Jersey Devils forward prospect Connor Chatham, another Swansea resident and former USNTDP member who earlier this summer became the first metro-east player taken in the NHL draft.
Chatham was the Devils' third-round pick, selected 71st overall. The pair have skated and trained together and were together again on Tuesday.
"He gives me tips and tells me what I'm going into," said Keller (5-foot-10, 165 pounds), who hopes to follow Chatham's path from Swansea to the NHL Draft.
Being part of an elite national development squad should provide a good push in that direction.
"It's pretty cool but I've got to keep my composure," Keller said. "If it all works out one day I'll be playing in the league. My draft's only two years away and I'm committed to Boston University, so I've still got lots of time left."
Being recognized as one of the truly elite players in the country means a lot.
"I'm pretty excited," Keller said. "It's going to be really competitive and everyone's used to being the best player on their team. You're in an environment where everyone wants success."
On the ice early
Success came quickly to Keller, who has been skating since age 3 when he stepped onto the ice at the U.S. Ice Sports Complex in Fairview Heights. He became hooked on hockey after attending a friend's birthday party there and has been terrorizing goaltenders ever since.
He began his career in the Ice Hawks program in Fairview Heights, at one point playing with Chatham, but quickly moved across the river to play for the Chesterfield Falcons and the AAA St. Louis Junior Blues.
Keller helped lead Shattuck-St. Mary's (43-8-2) to USA Hockey's under-18 national championship last season by scoring 36 goals and 77 points in 51 games. In two years there, he piled up 94 goals and 206 points in just 111 games, attracting enough attention to be drafted in the second round of the 2014 Ontario Hockey league draft by Windsor Spitfires.
He likely would have been a first-rounder if teams weren't already pretty sure that Keller was headed to the U.S. National Team squad.
In 2012-13 on the Shattuck-St. Mary's Bantam team, Keller racked up a ridiculous 58 goals and 129 points in 60 games.
"I'm definitely a high-scoring player with lots of skill," he said. "I like to pass first and I'm always trying to help my teammates first."
But when pressed about putting pucks in the net, Keller admitted "I love to score."
Keller attended Wolf Branch Grade School in Swansea through seventh grade, then headed to Shattuck St. Mary's. Along with Crosby and Toews, the program also produced NHL stars Zach Parise and Nathan MacKinnon and once was coached by former Blues coach Andy Murray.
Along with a seven-month game schedule and the rigorous academic program, hockey training and conditioning were a part of nearly every day.
"It wasn't really that tough, being with all my friends made it pretty easy," Keller said. "You're going to school with all the hockey players on our team and your best friends really made it lot easier.
"I never really had time to think about being home sick or anything like that."
St. Louis pipeline
Keller is one of 12 forwards on the 22-man USNTDP roster.
Other St. Louis area players on the team include forward and Wisconsin recruit Trent Frederic and defenseman and Michigan recruit Luke Martin.
The 18-under national team includes forward Matthew Tkachuk, a Notre Dame recruit and the son of former Blues star Keith Tkachuk. Other St. Louis-area players include forward Luke Kunin from Chesterfield, Mo. (Wisconsin) and goalie Luke Opilka (Wisconsin).
Many played with Keller on the Junior Blues and now are part of Team USA.
"I always wanted to play for my country," Keller said. "It can't get much better than that."