One of the first people Clayton Keller thought of when he heard his name called Friday at the NHL Draft was his grandfather, Bill Simpson.
Simpson died last year, but Keller remembered all the times his grandfather would pick up after after school at Wolf Branch in Swansea to drive him to hockey practice in Chesterfield, Mo.
When Keller became the metro-east’s only first-round pick, going seventh overall Friday to the Arizona Coyotes, he couldn’t help but share the joy with his grandpa.
“I think he would have loved to be here and I know he’s up there watching,” Keller said Saturday. “It’s just so special to share that moment with him even though he’s not here, and my family, too. His son came up his weekend so it was really special.
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“I don’t think I’d be here right now without everything my grandpa did for me back then. He picked me up from school and took me to practice pretty much every day.”
One of five first-round picks from the St. Louis region — all former AAA Blues teammates — Keller piled up 37 goals and 107 point in only 62 games last season for the Michigan-based U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-18 squad.
Keller still holds the NTDP’s record with 189 career points, more than current NHL stars Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, including 71 goals and 118 assists.
I don’t think I’d be here right now without everything my grandpa did for me back then. He picked me up from school and took me to practice pretty much every day.
Clayton Keller on his grandfather, Bill Simpson
Friday night was a whirlwind for Keller, who was a regular at St. Louis Blues games while growing up. He spent the night posing for photos and handling numerous interview requests while his cell phone was blowing up with congratulatory texts and messages.
“A couple guys on the Coyotes sent out a nice tweet welcoming me,” Keller said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”
He attended the draft at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center along with his parents, Bryan and Kelly Keller, brother Jake Keller, uncle Brian Simpson, aunt Marla Millonas and cousin Chad O’Neil, an equipment assistant for the Blues.
“Just enjoying the moment with them was special, hearing my name called,” Keller said. “It’s just good to hear your name called that early. It’s a little tough, but I think you have an idea before the draft where you think you’re going to go.
“After that it’s pretty much just a waiting game. I had a little bit of an idea because my agents were sitting above us and they came down to sit by me, so that gave me a little clue.”
Some wondered if teams might back off Keller a bit because of his size. Not many 5-foot-10, 170-pounders are selected in the first round of the draft, but Coyotes General Manager John Chayka had no problem doing so.
“He has excelled at every level,” Chayka told media at the draft. “He played against college players when he was with the program and did a phenomenal job, at times he produced at an even higher level and was more impactful. When you’re as smart and creative as he is, size isn’t a limiting factor.”
Keller walked up to the main stage at the draft, just a 17-year-old from Swansea with mad hockey skills tugging on an Arizona Coyotes jersey while being congratulated by everyone.
It’s just good to hear your name called that early. It’s a little tough, but I think you have an idea before the draft where you think you’re going to go. After that it’s pretty much just a waiting game.
“It was awesome to be selected by Arizona,” said Keller, one of numerous teams he met with at the NHL Draft Combine. “It’s a great spot and I’m just really excited and thankful to be picked by them. Arizona was a team that showed a lot of interest in me and took me out to dinner at the combine.
“We got to know each other so it wasn’t too big of a surprise, but I was a little shocked.”
Keller’s next big decision is where to play next season. His options are Boston University or with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.
For now, Keller seems to be leaning toward playing for Boston University.
“I think it’s the best route for me to get to the NHL,” he said.
It doesn’t hurt that the Terriers’ incoming freshman class includes fellow first-round picks and good friends Charles McAvoy (14th overall to the Boston Bruins), Dante Fabbro (17th overall to the Nashville Predators) and Kieffer Bellows (19th overall to the New York Islanders).
“There’s a great class going in and Coach (David) Quinn’s a great guy. I’m really close with him and I’ve heard nothing but great things from Jack Eichel and Charlie McAvoy, too.”
Eichel starred at BU and won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top collegiate player before being drafted second overall in 2015 by the Buffalo Sabres.”
Keller needs to add size and strength and BU has a strong reputation for its conditioning and workout programs.
“That’s one of the main reasons I’m going there is to get stronger,” Keller said. “They put a lot of emphasis on weight training and strength training. That’s what I’ll need the most.”
Once the draft was over, Keller and the rest of the large St. Louis draft contingent headed back to the hotel to celebrate with their families.
The group has been to numerous hotels through the years while playing in tournaments, but never all together on a night when five of them were part of a historic St. Louis first-round class.
Keller has played on teams with all of them.
The five first-rounders includes Matthew Tkachuk, Logan Brown, Luke Kunin and Trent Frederic, with another Keller teammate, goaltender Joseph Woll, going to Toronto on Saturday with the first pick in the third round of the draft.
“It’s awesome to see all those picks so high,” Keller said. “Just sitting there with all those guys and seeing all their names get called was unbelievable. It’s great for St. Louis hockey and hopefully the kids (back home) will look up to us.”
“It was great to see everyone last night. Everyone was happy and just enjoying the moment together.”