There aren't many better stories here at the eight-team NHL prospects tournament this week than that of right wing Aaron Palushaj, who was picked in the second round of the 2007 Entry Draft (No. 44) by the St. Louis Blues. He got his start in a roundabout way because of his first-grade teacher, Jane Crawford, at Gill Elementary in Farmington Hills, Mich.
"She had posters of Steve Yzerman and the 'Russian Five' on the walls of the classroom and we talked about hockey all the time," said Palushaj, who turned pro with the Blues' Peoria team in the American Hockey League last spring after producing 13 goals and 37 assists as a sophomore for the University of Michigan. "Before Jane and that class, all I knew was soccer."
Fast forward to Wednesday in Traverse City, where Palushaj helped set up two goals by Anthony Nigro
and another by Philip McRae
and combined with McRae to each score goals in a 4-3 shootout victory against the Minnesota Wild -- giving Palushaj 3 goals and 4 assists in three games and the tournament lead in scoring. If the Wild had not scored with 2.3 seconds left to send the game to overtime, the Blues would have qualified for the championship game Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Little would anyone know that Palushaj was only into soccer, a sport his father, Tom, played before he came to Michigan from Albania when he was 13.
"Aaron came to me and said, 'Dad, I want to play hockey,' " Tom Palushaj said. "I said, 'You want to do what?' He said, 'Hockey dad. Steve Yzerman. Red Wings. Hockey.' "
Finally, the Palushajs gave in to this foreign endeavor and Tom registered Aaron for a league, not knowing exactly what he was getting himself and his son into.
"I found a league and took him down to the rink," he explained. "Aaron got on the ice and it was obvious he was having trouble skating. The coach came over to me and said, 'Mr. Palushaj, do you know this is a traveling league?' I said, 'Yeah, I have a car -- not knowing that he meant it was a league for elite players.' "
After dad got Aaron into a Double A league, one more to his beginning speed, the kid took off. He fell in love with the game and became kind of a rink rat, always on the ice.
One more problem, said dad: "Coach came up to me and asked, 'Mr. Palushaj, do you know why Aaron keeps getting goals?' I said, 'I don't know. But I know I'm happy.' Coach said, 'It's because he keeps flying into the goal crease ... because he can't stop yet.' "
It was when he was 12 that Palushaj really developed, because of the work he did with Dave Liamatta of the Honey Baked team near Detroit and several power-skating camps he attended.
"I've always thought my work ethic was second to none," Palushaj said. "That's the only way I think you can get better is working harder than everybody else.
"I learned that from my dad, who worked hard to make a living for us and eventually opened several restaurants throughout southeast Michigan with his brothers. It's just in the genes, I guess."
Skating was always the concern for Palushaj. But he never stopped working on that and his hand skills.
"He's always trying to practice on his hands or his shot or something," said Jim Nill, Vice President and Assistant General Manager of the Detroit Red Wings who saw a lot of Palushaj when he was playing on the same youth team with Nill's son Trevor before Palushaj went to college. "Great kid. Real hard worker. And skilled."
Said Palushaj: "I try to be really creative with the puck. I'll stay out there after practice and stickhandle. It gets the defense thinking and the goalies aren't real sure what you're going to do with it if you keep the puck moving. At least that's how I look at it."
Blues scout Mike Antonovich said there's only been the natural size and strength improvement from the first time he saw Palushaj play for Des Moines of the United States Hockey League.
"He's always been competitive since I first saw him play for Des Moines," Antonovich said. "He's always been very skilled. Great with the puck. Nothing's change since those days in Des Moines, except he's bigger and stronger (at 6-foot, 185 pounds).
"Guys like that with heart and soul are the epitome of the kind of player every team is looking for."
When he went to Des Moines, Palushaj figured he might be able to turn that experience into a college scholarship offer. It wasn't until after his first year there, when he watched Kyle Okposo and Trevor Lewis from his team get drafted, that he ever seriously thought about the NHL.
"Coming from where I did, it was just a dream to be considered for a chance to play with the Wolverines," Palushaj reasoned. "But then, I said to myself, 'Hey, if I have a great second year at Des Moines, who knows.' "
His two years at Michigan became a steppingstone to NHL aspirations as well. And after scoring 2 goals in four-games in Peoria last spring and a summer of training in St. Louis and this tournament, there's no telling how fast this former soccer player can come now.
"This has to be the highlight of my career," Palushaj said Wednesday.
"He's done everything he had to to make himself better for the future," Blues GM Larry Pleau said. "He's a smart, smart player and skilled. He's really fun to watch."
Think of how proud Tom Palushaj must be of his 20-year-old son who had to pull his arm a little to get to play hockey in the first place.
"Now, everyone in the family is a hockey fan," Tom Palushaj said with a high-five after the game Wednesday night.