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After making NHL debut, Peeke gets chance to head home

Florida native could suit up against his childhood team on Saturday night

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Andrew Peeke was born on St. Patrick's Day in 1998. A few months later, a gleaming new arena just outside Miami was opened to serve as home of the Florida Panthers. 

The two would in many ways grow up together as a big part of each other's lives. A native of Parkland, Fla., Peeke attended his first game in the new arena at 6 months old, took in the NHL draft there at age 3 and attended countless Panthers games growing up. 

Now, just the 14th Florida-born player in NHL history is headed home. 

There's no guarantee he will play Saturday night when the Blue Jackets visit the Panthers, but after a strong debut in Thursday night's loss to the New York Rangers, Peeke will likely get a second crack at taking the ice in a CBJ sweater. 

If so, the BB&T Center better be ready. 

"The Panthers are going to sell an extra 300 tickets," his father, Cliff, said after Thursday night's game. "It would be an unbelievable experience. He's been going there since he was 6 months old, so the fact that he could actually be playing there at this age of his career … we're hoping it happens. We're really hoping." 

So is Peeke, who is one of the names at the front of the rise of Florida prospects who -- much like Columbus-area products in the years after the establishment of the Blue Jackets -- are starting to reach the highest level. 

"Obviously that's pretty cool," Peeke said of his return to South Florida. "The timing of it potentially worked out, but I'm just trying to focus on helping this team win. Whether I'm in the lineup or not come Saturday, I'm going to do my best to help this team win. That's what I'm here for, so I'm just excited for that." 

A rookie defenseman from Notre Dame, Peeke was called up for the first time ahead of Tuesday's game vs. Arizona but didn't play. It was a fitting moment to arrive in Columbus, though, as he grew up playing with Coyotes defenseman Jacob Chychrun, and the families remain friends.  

Peeke also grew up with Riley Stillman, a Panthers prospect and the son of former Florida forward Cory Stillman. Other Floridians who have made it big in recent years include Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who grew up near Miami as well; the Hughes brothers, Quinn and Jack, who were born in Orlando but grew up elsewhere; and Blackhawks forward Ryan Carpenter, who was also born and bred in Orlando.  

It's not an easy road for such players -- with the ice of hockey and the sun of South Florida not the easiest of mixes, travel hockey certainly means a lot of travel when it comes to finding a foes -- and Peeke eventually left home at age 14 to play for the Selects Hockey Academy in Connecticut. But those Florida roots remain important to Peeke.  

"It's something I take pride in," he said. "All my friends I grew up with that have made it to the Division I level and junior level and all that, it's really important to us. I think from my draft, there were five guys from Florida taken, which I think was a record. It's pretty cool. 

"Not all kids understand what it's like to leave home at 14 to live your dream. It's pretty cool to be able to share that with other people from the state." 

It's fair to say that journey has worked out. From Selects, Peeke moved on to the USHL, spending a successful year with the Green Bay Gamblers before being recruited to play at Notre Dame. He immediately earned a spot on the Fighting Irish blue line and became a captain his junior season a year ago, finishing with a career-high 24 points in 40 games while the Irish won a second consecutive Big Ten tournament and earned a third straight NCAA bid.  

He also was a second-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2016 -- one year after the draft returned to South Florida -- and chose to leave Notre Dame after his junior year to join the Columbus organization. He was the CBJ's last cut this camp and was off to an excellent start at AHL Cleveland, posting five goals and 12 points in his first 21 games.  

"Being that last cut, I knew I was close," Peeke said. "I thought I had a good camp and proved I can play at this level. I just wanted to take that down there and be the best Andrew Peeke I can be and help my team win games. That's obviously the most important thing, helping a team win and developing myself as a player, so I definitely had some confidence." 

Finally, the call came this week, and he stepped on the ice Thursday night and looked the part. In 12:53 of ice time, all at 5-on-5, he had one shot on a goal -- a wrister that nearly tied the game in the third period, as Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev just got a piece of it with his glove -- as well as three hits. Peeke was paired with Russian rookie Vladislav Gavrikov, and when he was on the ice, the Blue Jackets had a 9-1 edge in shots on goal and a 7-1 edge in scoring chances, per Natural Stat Trick. 

"It was obviously a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said. "It's a memory you'll never forget, your first NHL game. Obviously it would have been better if we got the win. It was a memory for a lifetime.  

"I felt pretty much ready from the start. Obviously it's human nature to have a little bit of nerves, but from the first shift I thought I was moving the puck well and getting up the ice and translating my game from Cleveland to here." 

Next up is a flight home. Peeke said the phone call to tell his parents he was making his NHL debut drew a scream from the other end, something his mother Mary Ruth confirmed, and the rest of the call was "just joy." 

By the end of Thursday night, there was another emotion, one that will be amplified if he can suit up Saturday night on the ice he grew up with. 

"No. 1 is pride," Cliff Peeke said. "We're just proud as parents. It's an unbelievable feeling." 

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