ST. LOUIS - Professional hockey is a sport that struggles to connect its casual fans with up-and-coming prospects, especially in the United States. In terms of visibility, NCAA hockey and Canadian junior-league hockey are small islands on a USA sports map of continents such as college basketball and football. So, when it comes time for the NHL Draft, fans often need to do research in order to get familiar with their team’s additions.
That is not to say hockey doesn’t produce a market-penetrating amateur every once and awhile. Diehard fans weren’t the only ones who knew who Sidney Crosby was in 2005 or who Connor McDavid was last June. But, if they knew Colton Parayko's name before he arrived at Blues training camp in September, they were more than in-the-know – more than most professional scouts.
The Blues plucked Parayko from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in the third round (86th overall) of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. It was a day Parayko will never forget, a day when Hall of Famer Al MacInnis called to give him the good news.
“It was incredible,” remembers Parayko. “I mean, getting a call from a Hall of Famer saying that you are drafted into the NHL is an amazing experience. I actually talked to the Blues one time prior to the draft, but I did not know if they were going to take me or not.”
The Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks, or Polar Bears for those not versed in Inuit mythology, have been a Division 1 program since 1981. But for Blues fans, it was an anonymous program ... until Parayko arrived.
Parayko’s journey to the NHL has been unorthodox. In 2008, the then 15-year-old St. Albert, Alberta, native was passed over in the Western Hockey League draft and signed on with the St. Albert Flyers at the Midget AAA level. The WHL is the natural progression for young teenagers with pro potential, so the snub seemed a significant setback.
Not to Parayko.
“Yeah, that wasn’t a big deal for me,” he explained. “I honestly had no expectation to be drafted. I hadn’t talked to any teams prior to the draft and I was only around 5-foot-9 at the time. I think it motivated me more than anything.”
Parayko’s physical disadvantage didn’t hamper him much longer. After a season with the AAA St. Albert Flyers, a step down to the AA St. Albert Crusaders in 2009 - and maybe a few cans of spinach - Parayko experienced a six-inch growth spurt in 2010. He signed on as the final defenseman for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League – a tier below the WHL. It was there that his newly-acquired size and raw talent caught the eye of Alaska-Fairbanks Head Coach Dallas Ferguson.
“The first time I saw Colton was in the playoffs of his rookie season in the AJHL,” recalls Ferguson. "His team lost by a large margin in the game I saw but Colton played a composed and efficient game. As much as I appreciated his athleticism and ability to play the game, he left a bigger impression from the character he displayed that night. Even though the game was out of reach, Colton competed until the final buzzer.”
Ferguson watched the Spruce Grove Saints hand Parayko’s Oil Barons an 8-1 drubbing in Game 2 of the AJHL Finals in 2011. Afterward, he sought out Parayko and introduced himself.
“I expected him to be quiet and not engaging based on the outcome of the game," Ferguson said. "Instead, I met a young man who was appreciative that I took the time to introduce myself even though they had lost the game. We spoke for five to ten minutes and after seeing his athletic ability and then meeting a young man that was as respectful as he was, I was sold that we wanted Colton to be a Nanook.”
The Nanooks got their wish. Even though he was given an offer to join a team in the 20-and-under WHL, Parayko recognized the benefits of the college route and committed to Alaska that summer.
“They were talking to me throughout the season,” said Parayko. “They invited me for a visit and I really enjoyed my stay there. Everyone was great to me. They showed a lot of confidence in me and I realized that college would allow me a few extra years of development, which was a great benefit.”
Parayko embraced his opportunity and became a leader with the Nanooks, wearing the “C” during his final season.
“Colton positively impacted our team on and off the ice,” said Ferguson. “He was very committed to his athletic and academic career. There were no days off for him. His workload was very high and he strived to get better every day.”
Parayko’s impact was not limited to Fairbanks. He garnered national acclaim, earning WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and NCAA West Second Team All-American honors in each of his last two seasons.
At the end of his junior season, Parayko signed an entry-level contract with the Blues, joining their American Hockey League affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, for the remainder of their 2015 regular season and postseason. After the Wolves were eliminated from the playoffs, he aimed his sights at making an impression with the Blues.
He made an immediate impression. Prior to 2015 training camp, Parayko captained the Blues team to a 3-1 record at the 2015 Traverse City Prospects Tournament, ranking third among tournament defensemen with four points.
When the prospects returned from Traverse City, NHL training camp was in full swing. And Parayko continued to impress.
During physical exams, he checked in at 6-foot-6, 226-pounds and a shade under 6 percent body fat. To borrow a line from Jerry Seinfeld describing a Drake’s Coffee Cake, “That’s your big boy.”
On the ice, Parayko excelled throughout camp and in the preseason. He registered six points during the exhibition schedule which trailed only Vladimir Tarasenko's seven for the team lead.
With his play at Chicago, his leadership at Traverse City, his off-ice testing and his success during the preseason, Parayko made a bigger splash than he could have imagined.
But an NHL roster is hard to crack. The Blues were coming off a 2015 Central Division title. They had posted the NHL’s best regular-season record since Ken Hitchcock took over in 2011-12. Defensively, they had allowed just 2.22 goals per game in the same span – second only to Los Angeles. They had incumbent players waiting in line to complete the defensive unit. On paper, there were no openings. The coaching staff had the luxury of exercising patience with young players.
But Parayko would not be denied. His hard work and skills were eye-opening and on Oct. 8, he joined 20 other Blues who suited-up to open the 2015-16 regular season against the Edmonton Oilers at Scottrade Center.
Fifteen games into the season, five goals and five assists in, Blues fans have become well-aware of Parayko. The former Nanook is receiving rave reviews and big ovations from the Scottrade faithful as an emerging Blues standout.
He features a St. Louis favorite - a blazing slap-shot that has been described by teammate Jake Allen as the hardest he’s ever faced, that has been compared to that of MacInnis. For the record, Parayko’s shot has never been officially clocked. But Allen has fielded Shea Weber’s slapper – clocked at 108.5 mph at last year’s All-Star Game – on several occasions.
Parayko is also a strong skater with surprising maneuverability for a man of his size. It’s something Parayko has focused on since his growth spurt.
“I had a brutal time skating after I grew six inches,” he said. “It took a lot of patience and work; however, I eventually got it sorted out.”
And then there’s his off-ice quality. He’s mild-mannered, polite, humble and noticeably thankful for every step he takes in an NHL locker room – qualities he credits to his upbringing. Parayko’s siblings include two sisters, Kendra (26) and Kennedy (20), as well as a brother, Bryce (24). All played hockey growing up, all have the same enviable qualities instilled by their mom and dad.
“My whole family was raised with humility,” Parayko explained. “We are all mirrors of my mom and dad. They definitely deserve all the credit for our demeanors.”
It is early, really early. Parayko is on a promising track, though the future is impossible to predict. But his promise seems more reliable than others. One can envision his slap shot on the power play becoming a crowd-inciting spectacle for years to come. One can picture his standup demeanor and locker-room presence growing legs in a city that loves to embrace its professional athletes.
Parayko can see it too.
“It excites me 100 percent to know that the community and fan base is behind us,” he said. “I want to take it all in and do everything I can to help not only the franchise but the city of St. Louis as well. It has all been very exciting but I want to remain humble and recognize that I’m lucky to do what I love.
"I think I just need to stay honest with myself, even if there is a lot of hype. I have not proven anything yet. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in order to be successful.”