ST. LOUIS -- So many athletes in and around the Toronto area grow up and play hockey, and beginning at an early age is inevitable.Alex Pietrangelo
is no exception.
However, only a select few make it to the top of the sport. Those long odds didn't stop Pietrangelo, who grew up about 45 minutes north of Toronto in King City, Ont.
"I had the backyard rink at the house my dad [Joe] made for us," Pietrangelo said. "I don't think it really kicked in until I got drafted third overall in the  OHL draft and I thought, 'This could be a real opportunity for me and I can actually become a pro.'"
But with a little hard work and a push from his father Joe and mother Edi, Pietrangelo was guided in the proper direction. There also was motivation from Alex's uncle, Frank Pietrangelo, who was a goalie on the Pittsburgh Penguins' 1991 Stanley Cup champions, and also played with the Hartford Whalers in a seven-year NHL career.
"I am the way that I am because of my parents," Pietrangelo said. "They did such a great job raising me and still [have] to this day. … They're the biggest keys to me getting where I am now today."
Pietrangelo grew up playing minor hockey with fellow competitors and close friends Steven Stamkos and Michael Del Zotto, who all were part of that talented 2008 NHL Draft.
They split up in 2006 when they joined the Ontario Hockey League. Pietrangelo landed with the Niagara IceDogs, and it was in Niagara where a contingency from the St. Louis Blues needed to see very little to know Pietrangelo was the player they wanted.
Defense - STL
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 3 | +/-: 0
"We went into Niagara and it was [pro scout] Basil McRae, [director of amateur scouting] Jarmo Kekalainen and myself, and I remember standing there on the rail, it was a small rink and we were watching," Blues President John Davidson recalled. "Petro made two plays which they call look-off plays where he would look in one direction and the forechecker would go in that direction expecting Petro to move the puck and he'd move it in the opposite direction on the tape, a no-look pass. After the second one, Jarmo closed his book and said, 'That's what I came to see.' We drafted fourth that year, Petro was our choice and we were very happy with it."
Stamkos went to Tampa Bay, defenseman Drew Doughty went to Los Angeles and blueliner Zach Bogosian went to Atlanta. The Blues had their eye on Doughty but didn't feel like he would get to the fourth pick.
"We were really looking at a defenseman, somebody that can really move the puck," Davidson said. "We extensively scouted Doughty, [Tyler] Myers, [Luke] Schenn, Bogosian and all those defensemen. There were a lot of good defensemen that year. … but with Doughty going early, we zeroed in on picking Petro."
Needless to say, the Blues have been very happy with their selection.
Pietrangelo just completed his second full season with the Blues and posted career-highs in goals , assists  and points . His evolution as a player has been quite impressive.
But it wasn't without a lot of work, a hard dose of reality and plenty of motivation.
Four of the first five picks in that 2008 draft played the entire season in the NHL; Pietrangelo was the exception, being returned to Niagara after playing eight games. The Blues repeated the move in 2009, with Pietrangelo playing nine games before going back to junior hockey. The second time, it was on the advice of general manager Doug Armstrong, who at the time was the assistant GM under Larry Pleau.
"We knew this may take a little bit longer, which it did, for all the right reasons," Davidson said. "We didn't want to rush him.
"I can remember being in Columbus with [then-coach] Andy Murray in the hotel room telling him that he's going to go back to juniors," Davidson said. "It was a tough conversation because he's a real competitive-natured kid. But he's never looked back. … He's a second-year pro and he's got a lot of upside yet. Is he ever a great competitor."
Defense partner and good friend Carlo Colaiacovo
, who took Pietrangelo in as an 18-year-old, said it was all about maturing.
"The biggest thing I noticed about him is that he stayed the same as a person off the ice," Colaiacovo said. "He didn't get too full of himself. … Here's a kid who came in last year with minimal expectations and finished the year with expectations higher than anyone ever exceeded."
Although tough at the time, Pietrangelo looks back on his extended junior career and delayed start with the Blues with no regrets.
"It's hard to argue that it wasn't the best decision," he said. "Knowing how far I am now and how far I've come, it's a tough thing to go through as a young player, but it's something you have to understand."
Pietrangelo's development led to a pair of selections to represent Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, as well as the World Championship last summer.
After an 11-goal, 43-point season in 2010-11, Pietrangelo has followed it by finishing third on the Blues in scoring this season, trailing only David Backes
and T.J. Oshie
. He thrived as coach Ken Hitchcock entrusted Pietrangelo by playing him the most minutes on the team (24:41 per game), and playing him in all situations.
Pietrangelo's emergence enabled the Blues to trade Erik Johnson, the top pick in the 2006 draft, for power forward Chris Stewart
and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk
"If you're a fan of St. Louis and a Blues fan, you're watching the emergence of a really good player," Hitchcock said of Pietrangelo. "There's not many defensemen where you say this guy's got a chance to be a (No. 1). He has a chance to be one."
And now Pietrangelo's name is being tossed in with those mentioned as candidates for the Norris Trophy, along with Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson. It may be the first time he's entered the discussion but it likely won't be the last.
"It's an honor," Pietrangelo said. "There's so many great players that are going to be up for that award. Just to be mentioned in the same category as those guys is something special.
"I've got to give credit to my teammates as well, who have only made me better."
If the individual accolades don't come as often, Pietrangelo wouldn't be terribly disappointed. After all, his sole purpose for driving to the rink on a daily basis and becoming a better player is for that ultimate prize handed out in June.
"That's why you play the game," Pietrangelo said of winning the Stanley Cup. "Growing up, that's your biggest dream.
"I've come a long way, especially since my first [NHL] training camp at 18 to where I am now. A lot has happened since then. I've always considered myself a hard worker. The way I look at things now, it can only get better. I want to keep getting better."