Meet Me In St. Louis

Former Blues Trigger Growth Of Hockey Talent In Gateway City

Scott Sanderson, Jincy Dunne, Steve Cash, Patrick Johnson, Luke Radetic & Keith Tkachuk at a site overlooking the famed Gateway Arch in St. Louis.Scott Sanderson, Jincy Dunne, Steve Cash, Patrick Johnson, Luke Radetic & Keith Tkachuk at a site overlooking the famed Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

During Pat LaFontaine’s Hall of Fame NHL career in the 1980s and ’90s, St. Louis hockey fans were quick to claim him as their own.

No matter that he spent his formative hockey years in the Detroit area, he was a native St. Louisan. Born in St. Louis, LaFontaine lived his first few years in Kirkwood, a suburb about 15 miles from the Gateway Arch, before his family relocated to the Motor City.

But other than LaFontaine, the proverbial hockey well was dry. Though popular with leagues throughout the area, youth hockey in St. Louis had produced exactly zero NHL players as the 20th century came to a close.

Fast forward into the second decade of the 21st century, and youth hockey in St. Louis is wildly successful.

We’re getting the recognition now that, ‘Hey, kids from St. Louis can play.’”

— Blake Dunlop, former St. Louis Blues Player

Six St. Louis products play in the National Hockey League, including two who are suiting up for the local six: Paul Stastny and Chris Butler. They attended Chaminade College Preparatory School, which also produced Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop, one of the top goalies in the NHL. In addition, Brandon Bollig of St. Charles is the first St. Louis-area product with his name on the Stanley Cup, with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013.

More St. Louisans are on the cusp – in the American Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and playing in Europe. Still others play at the Major Junior hockey and NCAA Division I levels, and six – count ’em six – are in Ann Arbor, Mich., with the National Team Development Program.

St. Louis hockey has come a long way since the day when fans adopted LaFontaine because they simply had no one else.

“It is very satisfying to see all the hard work that a lot of coaches and [Blues] alumni have put in, but also the kids,” said former Blue Blake Dunlop, who was instrumental in putting St. Louis youth hockey on the right road. “We’re getting the recognition now that, ‘Hey, kids from St. Louis can play.’”

Dunlop helped start the programs that have put St. Louis on the hockey map – the team that played in the Quebec Peewee Tournament and grew from that into the AAA Bantams.

At the time, Dunlop’s 11-year hockey career had ended, and he returned to St. Louis, where he had spent five seasons before an ending stint with the Detroit Red Wings. He ran the “Blake Dunlop Hockey Camp” to fill the void left by Red Berenson’s departure to the University of Michigan, so coaching was already in his blood.

So when Herb Raskas of Missouri Amateur Hockey approached him about starting a Peewee All-Star team, he jumped on board.

A lot of the veteran Blues like Keith Tkachuk, Jeff Brown and my dad,  … just helped out with development and helped the game in St. Louis.”

— RYAN MACINNIS

Ryan MacInnis

Kitchner Rangers
St. Louis

The son of St. Louis Blues great Al MacInnis is following in his father’s footsteps as a second-round selection of the Arizona Coyotes in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. A former player with the NTDP, MacInnis was a member of Team USA at the 2012 Winter Youth Olympics, and helped the U.S. win bronze at the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. He was also selected to play in the 2013 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.

“Rather than just break it off with all the best players having their own association, he wanted to try to put together a team and he suggested we go to the Quebec Peewee Tournament and asked me to coach. That’s how it started,” Dunlop said.

“It was the first time we pulled kids from [different areas]. They had a great experience up at that tournament, and the team has grown and grown. The Quebec Peewee team is a huge part of youth hockey in St. Louis now.”

Dunlop recruited another former Blue, John Wensink, to help coach the team in its second year, and the experience again was positive for the youngsters and their parents. The parents wanted to keep the team together at the next level; hence, AAA hockey was born in St. Louis.

Those first years were tough, though, as the St. Louis Blues AAA team went up against foes from the hockey hotbed of Detroit.

“When we first got started, we used to get beat up pretty good,” Dunlop said. “When we’d go up to Detroit and play Compuware and Little Caesars, there was a little bit of growing pains.

“But year by year, we kept getting better and better, and now St. Louis hockey probably has moved ahead of some of those programs.”

Slowly but surely, St. Louis players started to get recognized and played at the highest level. Dunlop’s son, Connor, was in the first group of NTDP players and went on to play at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Neil Komadoski Jr., John Ramage and Philip McRae soon followed him to Ann Arbor. All are sons of former Blues players, and Neil Komadoski Jr. was the first St. Louisan to appear in the NHL.

Their dads – Neil Komadoski, Rob Ramage and Basil McRae – are among the Blues alumni who have followed in Dunlop’s skates. Wensink, Mike Zuke, Larry Patey, Perry Turnbull, Rick Zombo, Jeff Brown, Kelly Chase, Al MacInnis, Keith Tkachuk and Chris Pronger all played key roles in growing the program.
Currently, there are six AAA teams – Peewee through Midget Major – plus three girls’ teams and three teams for youngsters, under 8 through under 10.

Chase, Tkachuk and Pronger are assistant coaches of boys’ teams, and MacInnis helps out with a girls’ team.


Steve Cash

U.S. Sled Hockey Team
Overland, Mo.
The St. Louis native cemented his legacy as the preeminent sled hockey goalie in the world by backstopping the U.S. Sled Hockey Team to its second consecutive gold medal at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. This came on the heels of efforts at the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver where he didn’t allow a goal in five games. Cash also led the St. Louis Blues sled team to consecutive Adult Sled National Championships in 2012 and 2013.

“A lot of the veteran Blues like Keith Tkachuk, Jeff Brown and my dad, they took over the organization, … just helped out with development and helped the game in St. Louis,” said Ryan MacInnis, the 43rd overall pick by Arizona in the second round of the NHL draft last summer. “They run the practices. They know how to develop kids.”

Youth hockey players have benefited from their coaching expertise, which for young players is to keep it simple.

“Like skating and passing,” MacInnis said, adding that approach “usually ends up pretty well for the younger guys.”

They can leave systems for later, but when the time comes, the former NHL players put their experience into practice.

“That’s the key, having guys who know the game of hockey and are willing to put in the time,” said Tkachuk, an assistant coach of the under 16 team. His son Matthew is on the U.S. Under-18 National Team in Ann Arbor.

Tkachuk “loves” the coaching and giving back to the game in which he has gotten so much.

“I feel like I owe it to the game of hockey to try to help out kids,” said the U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer.

“You want to give kids an opportunity to become better, not just better players but better people, teach them the team aspect, so I enjoy doing it. I spend a lot of time in the rink.

“I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t at practice every night or every other night. … I feel like I’m busier now than when I played, but I enjoy it.”

Like Tkachuk, many Blues alumni have been willing to put in the time for the love of the game, rather than as an avenue to line their pockets.


Jincy Dunne

U.S. Women’s Under-18 Team
O’Fallon, Mo.
Jincy Dunne pulled a rare doubleheader in 2014 when she captained the U.S. to a silver medal at the IIHF Women’s Under-18 World Championship in Budapest, Hungary, then turned around to play a key role with the St. Louis AAA Blues boys’ team that advanced to the semifinals of the Tier I Youth 16 & Under National Championships. Dunne will suit up again for the U.S. at this year’s Women’s Under-18 World Championship in Buffalo.

“We owe it to a lot of the alumni who were before my time, guys like Blake Dunlop, Basil McRae, Rob Ramage, guys who gave back to the game for nothing,” said Brown, who now coaches the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League after a successful run with the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League.

“That’s the difference; there’s a lot of NHL cities where guys are looking for money and that kind of stuff, and these guys did it for nothing because they wanted to give back to such a great hockey market, which is St. Louis and the Blues.”

Dunlop credits the coaches who came after him with building the program to a higher level.

“From a coaching perspective, alumni have been able to pass along information to kids at a younger age and now you have teams winning national championships,” he said.

And it isn’t just the offspring of ex-Blues who are benefiting. Yes, Paul Stastny and Ryan MacInnis are sons of Hall of Famers, and Matthew Tkachuk is with the USA development team. But the five other players in that program don’t have the NHL pedigree – Luke Opilka and Luke Kunin of the 18s; and Joseph Woll, Luke Martin and Trent Frederic of the 17s.

In addition, Connor Chatham, the 71st pick by New Jersey in the third round of the draft last year, is from the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, and his dad, Grey, graduated from since-closed Assumption High School in East St. Louis in the Blues early years.

According to Grey Chatham, his son benefited from St. Louis youth teams going out of town to the biggest tournaments and receiving exposure to scouts.

“They bring all this talent to one place,” he said. “Scouts can now just go to these tournaments instead of having to travel all around the country.”

In addition, the best youth teams from around the country view trips to St. Louis as worthy adventures.

“When we first started, people looked down their nose at us – ‘St. Louis?’” Dunlop said. “They didn’t want to come play here because they thought they were so much better, but we paid our dues, if you will, the first few years in building the program up where we could be competitive. Certainly now, those team are all dying to come to St. Louis and play the best of the best.

“And it’s fun for our guys to go up to Montreal or Toronto, win some tournaments and open some eyes up there that St. Louis hockey is pretty solid.”

 

 

 

Dave Luecking covered the St. Louis Blues for 13 seasons in a 28-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and currently covers them for his website, Mound City Sports.
Photos By Getty Images

 

Issue: 
2015-01

Poll

Who is your favorite American player?: