St. Louis Blues

Rise of local youth hockey talent key part of St. Louis’ bid for World Junior Championships

Clayton Keller
Clayton Keller

Seated high above downtown St. Louis on Wednesday morning while having breakfast at Club 360, members of the USA Hockey committee had a good view of not only the Arch and Busch Stadium but also across the Mississippi River into Illinois.

Both sides of the river are now prime hockey country.

USA Hockey has chosen St. Louis as one of three finalists to host the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships along with Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y.. A final decision on the host city will be announced in December and the group just completed a three-day tour of the St. Louis region as the local organizers tried to put their best skates forward.

Along with its fine facilities, infrastructure and ability to host an event expected to attract more than 300,000 with an economic impact of $25 million, St. Louis has become a youth hockey hotbed that has definitely caught the attention of not only the World Juniors selection committee but the hockey world.

“It starts with the core of our alumni and their involvement with youth hockey and now the great success in some cases their children are having with USA Hockey,” Blues CEO Chris Zimmerman said Thursday. “St. Louis hockey is on the rise. It’s a force in USA Hockey today.

“Certainly there will be three to four St. Louis-born kids (drafted ) in the high rounds, if not the first and second round, in this year’s NHL draft. That’s a phenomenal accomplishment.”

The metro-east will be part of that accomplishment since one of those potential first-round picks is 17-year-old Swansea native Clayton Keller, ranked as high as the 10th best 2016 draft prospect by and no lower than 21st by other prospect web sites.

St. Louis youth hockey is strong. Clayton is a real good example of it.

USA Hockey official Jim Johannson on Clayton Keller

Keller is a product of the thriving St. Louis youth hockey scene and would be eligible to play in the 2018 event in his hometown. He grew up playing in the metro-east in Fairview Heights, then was coached by former Blues star Keith Tkachuk while playing with Tkachuk’s sons, Matthew and Brady in St. Louis.

Keller put up some major offensive numbers at the prestigious Shattuck St. Mary’s School in Minnesota that has produced many current and former NHL stars.

Keller is currently playing with some of the top players in his age group in the country, including three other St. Louis area products, with the U.S. National Team Development Program’s under-18 squad. Verbally committed to Boston University since he was 15, the high-scoring Keller already has six goals and 20 points in 11 games.

“St. Louis youth hockey is strong,” said Jim Johannson, a member of USA Hockey’s selection committee and the organization’s assistant executive director of hockey operations. “Clayton is a real good example of it. He’s off to a great start this season but he’s also on a great development path in that his game continues to get better and he makes those around him a better player.

“It was impressive, the player (Keller) was when he came to us. That means he got great coaching and he got good training when he was here.”

Johannson is a two-time Team USA player at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. He’s also general manager of the U.S. National Team Development Program, so he sees players like Keller and Tkachuk and other St. Louis area products on a regular basis.

St. Louis hockey is on the rise. It’s a force in USA Hockey today.

Blues CEO Chris Zimmerman

“It helps when special players come through to elevate those around the community with them,” Johannson said. “I hope some other young boys are aspiring to be Clayton Keller, to be Matthew Tkachuk and Brady Tkachuk. Those young players get to see another St. Louis kid putting a USA jersey on and having success.”

Shiloh native Connor Chatham, 19, is a forward drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the third round of the 2014 draft. Alton native Dakota Mermis is a defenseman who signed with the Arizona Coyotes and now plays for their top farm team while Effingham goalie Luke Opilka was a fifth-round draft pick by the Blues last summer.

Blues center Paul Stastny and defenseman Chris Butler each grew up in St. Louis.

Along with a three-day whirlwind tour of the city that included stops at Busch Stadium, Union Station, Ballpark Village, Scottrade Center and the Family Arena in St. Charles, Mo., the committee also got to see a special video and on-ice presentation Thursday morning put together by the Blues and St. Louis Sports Commission.

The video centered on the St. Louis organizing group’s “Heartland of Hockey” theme and included everything from former Blues star and Hall of Famer Brett Hull scoring a goal on the ice to a young boy tugging on a Team USA sweater and chants of “USA, USA, USA.”

The video included clips of several Blues players talking about their own World Junior Championship experiences and a message narrated by Blues captain David Backes.

The Blues and their partners threw everything they could into landing one of hockey’s top international events. The tournament features the top stars under age 20 from 10 countries and is held in late December and early January.

“It’s huge,” Zimmerman said. “It is a mini-Olympic event. You’ve got 10 teams, 31 games over 10 days.”

An impressive gathering of Blues alumni turned out for a breakfast and press conference Thursday and included Hull, Keith Tkachuk, Chris Pronger, Martin Brodeur along with Blues owner Tom Stillman and General Manager Doug Armstrong.

“The last 48 hours has probably been the fastest 48 hours I’ve had in a long, long time — and I will l tell you that’s a compliment,” said USA Hockey’s Mike Bertsch, head of the selection group. “That’s a compliment to the team here in terms of the engagement they provided us with people in the community, with the sites and going through the facilities and to really get an understanding of what St. Louis is all about.

“I think our team would agree that everything that was shown to us over the last couple days was more than impressive.”

Bertsch said providing top-notch hockey venues is only a small part of the event, which would include six games at the Family Arena.

“We need to make sure that there’s an engagement with the community,” he said, “that it’s not just a hockey tournament, though that’s the focus of it. We want everybody to feel the international flavor and to be able to portray that to the world because this is going to be broadcast around the world.”