As a youngster, Clayton Keller would make the trip from his hometown of Swansea with his father and grandfather to watch St. Louis Blues games.
On Monday, 18-year-old Keller took the ice at Scottrade Center in his NHL debut with the Arizona Coyotes, playing against the team he grew up rooting for and getting a spot in the starting lineup.
Keller became the first metro-east player to skate in an NHL game. He had more than a little encouragement from people like his father, Bryan Keller, who kept bringing Keller to Blues games.
“My dad kept saying ‘one day you can be out there,”’Clayton Keller said.
Did the youngster believe it?
“I did,” Keller said. “I thought that if I worked hard enough I had enough skill to do it. It’s really special.”
Keller also realized the impact of being the first metro-east player in the NHL.
“Yeah, definitely,” said Keller, who had no shots while playing 14 minutes, 9 seconds in 21 shifts. “It’s great for the area. Kids watch me achieve this goal and (it’s) making them want to try hockey and focus on it more than other sports. I think it’s going in the right direction in the area.”
Keller’s father, Bryan Keller, recalled telling his son those words that proved so prophetic.
“He was probably 6,” Bryan Keller said. “He just always had that look in his eye like that was his deal, he was going to be there. When he was even younger he used to sit in my lap. We had two seats, but he would sit in my lap at games.”
Before the opening faceoff, Keller had a quick visit with Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko.
“It was awesome for him to come up and say ‘congrats’ on the first one here,” Keller said. “It’s something I’ll never forget. He’s an unbelievable player and he’s someone that I watched a couple years ago. He’s a star in the league and someone I definitely look up to.”
Keller’s grandfather, Bill Simpson, hauled Clayton Keller to a lot of hockey practices in Chesterfield, Mo., and traveled with the family to many of his games and tournaments. Simpson is no longer alive, but more than a few people think his influence may have resulted in Clayton’s first game being in the arena closest to home.
“So many people have said that, that it was fate,” Bryan Keller said. “Grandpa Bill was smiling down and made sure that happened. It’s just so cool that it ended up being here.”
Bryan Keller, wife Kelley Keller and 14-year-old brother Jake Keller were among the more than 50 family, friends and Clayon Keller attending the Blues-Coyotes game.
When the teams came out for warmups, as per NHL custom, Clayton Keller got a warmup lap by himself as his teammates waited to join him after that.
One of Keller’s earliest Blues memories was getting a puck tossed to him during warmups by former Blues defenseman Barret Jackman.
“My memory was Jackman threw me a puck once and I wore No. 5 (Jackman’s number) for a little bit growing up, when I was really young,” said Keller, who signed a three-year entry level deal with the Coyotes on Sunday after finishing up his freshman season with Boston University. “I was really young ... just being a little kid. I was was right on the glass watching and he threw me a puck. That’s how it started I guess.”
Keller, chosen by the Coyotes with the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, wore No. 14. He started at left wing on a line with former U.S. National Development team teammate Christian Fischer and center Alexander Burmistrov.
Keller had a whirlwind weekend that led him to the Coyotes. Boston University lost in overtime Saturday to Minnesota-Duluth at the NCAA Tournament in Fargo, N.D., then he had to fly back to Boston with the team before reversing directions and flying to St. Louis for his signing and a Sunday afternoon practice.
“It’s been pretty crazy, lots of travel,” said Keller, who set up a double-overtime goal Friday that helped Boston U defeat North Dakota to reach Saturday’s regional final against Minnesota-Duluth. “I got back to Boston at 4 (a.m.) and then left at 6 to come here (Sunday), so lots of sleep yesterday. I’m really looking forward to tonight.”
My dad kept saying ‘one day you can be out there.’
Keller was named Hockey East and College Hockey News Rookie of the year after leading Boston University in scoring this season as a freshman. Keller, known for his high scoring totals and slick play-making skills, led the Terriers with 21 goals and 45 points in 31 games.
Keller’s youth career included a stint with the AAA Blues, where he was one of five players selected in the first round of the NHL Draft. One of the five first-round picks, Matthew Tkachuk, made his NHL debut earlier this season with the Calgary Flames.
Tkachuk’s father, former Blues star Keith Tkachuk, was one of the coaches on the AAA Blues.
“My favorite player was probably Keith Tkachuk growing up and eventually he was coaching me one day, so that was pretty cool,” Keller said.
Fischer knows Keller well and the pair will be roommates on the road. When asked about Keller’s elite skill level, Fischer has seen the impact first-hand.
“It’s unbelievable,” Fischer said. “It’s hard to say he’s going to be like (Blackhawks superstar) Patrick Kane, but they’re pretty similar players. Obviously Patrick’s an elite player, but Clayton has elite skill and just the way he can control games ... you’ve seen it the whole year (at Boston U.), you’ve seen it at World Juniors. I think he has the potential to be an elite player in this league.”
Keller has been hearing these Kane comparisons for a while now. Both are fairly small (by typical NHL standards) and both are U.S. born forwards who represented their country on international teams.
“He’s definitely someone I like to watch and he’s obviously not the biggest guy,” Keller said. “He’s got great skill.”