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Youth Hockey in St. Louis has Big Weekend

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues

ST. LOUIS - When the 2016 NHL Draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in Buffalo, six players from St. Louis had been selected.

Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, Logan Brown, Luke Kunin, Trent Frederic and Joseph Woll - all St. Louis natives and former St. Louis AAA Blues players - heard their names called at the draft, and five of them were selected in the first round.

It’s no wonder St. Louis has been dubbed the “Heartland of Hockey.”

“That made my night,” said former Blue Keith Tkachuk, whose son Matthew became the highest St. Louis-born player ever selected in an NHL Draft when the Calgary Flames picked him in the first round at No. 6 overall. “What a special night for St. Louis and the AAA Blues to have five kids drafted in the first round. It’s unheard of. It’s a credit to a lot of people who put in a lot of time and effort to work with these kids. It’s a heck of a day for St. Louis youth hockey. It’s amazing.”

“It all started with St. Louis hockey and a lot of credit goes to the AAA Blues,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “I know [St. Louis] is a hockey hotbed right now, and we want to continue to produce players. Hopefully in the next couple years, we have some higher picks. That means we did a good job of trailblazing and helping kids want to play hockey.”

The St. Louis AAA Blues were formed in the early 1990s and serve as one of the premier Tier I youth hockey organizations in North America. Hundreds of former AAA Blues are currently playing junior, college or some level of professional hockey.

Paul Stastny, Pat Maroon, Ben Bishop, Joe Vitale, Cam Janssen and Mike McKenna are just a few of the former AAA Blues to have played in the NHL.

“You have to go back to (former Blue) Basil McRae - he was a big part of the AAA Blues team,” said Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong. “Al MacInnis, Jeff Brown, Keith Tkachuk and Chris Pronger - these are elite people in our game that are coaching these players at a young age. To see those kids walk up on stage, it was surreal. It was unbelievable for our community.”

The growth of youth hockey in St. Louis is nothing new, and it shows no signs of stopping. Last November, the Blues launched their Hockey STL 2020 campaign, an ambitious initiative aimed at growing the game of hockey by 70 percent in the St. Louis region by 2020. The campaign will introduce hockey to 25,000 kids per year through ball hockey programs in schools and community centers, and will try to develop more than 5,000 new ice hockey players.

Over the next five years, the Blues will commit $2 million to programs impacting youth hockey throughout the entire St. Louis region.

Armstrong said having so many St. Louis natives selected at the Draft can do wonders for youth hockey in the area.

“It gives all the kids playing here some new stars (to root for)," he said. "They don’t have to look at players from a different part of the world or a different part of the country. They can look in their own backyard and say ‘I want to be like these guys.’ It’s an unbelievable testament to youth hockey in St. Louis, a community that loves hockey.

“I think youth hockey in St. Louis could be here for a long time.”

Matthew Tkachuk
Calgary Flames - First Round (No. 6 Overall)

He's just 18 years old, but Matthew Tkachuk is already a proven winner. As a member of the 1997 AAA Blues, Tkachuk won a number of tournaments throughout North America on a roster stacked with future professional talent. He carried that over to international play with the USA National Team Development Program, winning Gold at both the U-17 World Hockey Challenge and the 2015 U-18 IIHF World Championships, where he led the tournament with 10 assists. He just completed his first season in the Ontario Hockey League, helping the London Knights capture OHL and Memorial Cup titles. Last season, Tkachuk finished fifth overall in OHL scoring with 107 points in 57 games. He added another 40 points in the playoffs in just 18 games. Click here to see what his dad, Keith, had to say about Matthew getting drafted.

Clayton Keller
Arizona Coyotes - First Round (No. 7 Overall)

Clayton Keller is known for his on-ice creativity and dazzling playmaking skills and has been turning heads throughout his hockey career, which began with the St. Louis AAA Blues. Keller just wrapped up his career with the USA National Team Development Program, where he leaves as the all-time assist leader and just the third player ever to reach the 100 point mark, joining Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane. He was part of USA's gold-medal winning team at the 2015 U-18 IIHF World Championships and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player at the 2016 World Championships where USA captured the bronze. Keller is committed to Boston University.

Logan Brown
Ottawa Senators - First Round (No. 11 Overall)

Logan Brown is the son of former Blue Jeff Brown. He led the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires with 53 assists and finished second on the club with 74 points last season, helping Windsor return to the OHL playoffs. In 2014-15, Brown was named to the OHL’s Second All-Rookie Team after finishing fifth among first-year players with 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists).

Luke Kunin
Minnesota Wild - First Round (No. 15 Overall)

Luke Kunin was widely considered one of the top two-way players available in the Draft. Kunin is a born leader who recently captained USA to a Gold medal at the 2015 IIIHF World Championships. Following two successful seasons with the USA National Team Development Program, Kunin just completed his freshman season at the University of Wisconsin, where his 19 goals earned him Big Ten Conference All-Rookie honors. Click here to see what Luke's dad had to say about his son being selected by Minnesota.

Trent Frederic
Boston Bruins - First Round (No. 29 Overall)

A former High school quarterback, Trent Frederic brings a combination of size, strength and skill to any roster in need of a responsible two-way center. Following a long career with the St. Louis AAA Blues, Frederic just completed his second season with the USA National Team Development program. A strong season that saw him improve his offensive numbers, Frederic is being compared to a number of NHL players including long-time St. Louis Blues captain David Backes. He recently put up four goals and three assists in seven games as his country took home the bronze at the 2016 U-18 IIHF World Championships. Next season, Frederic will play for the University of Wisconsin.

Joseph Woll
Toronto Maple Leafs - Third Round (No. 62 Overall)

Joseph Woll spent last season proving he has the size and the talent to develop into a solid NHL goaltender. Woll honed his skills with the St. Louis AAA Blues before playing two seasons with the USA National Team Development Program. Woll backstopped USA to a Bronze medal at the 2016 IIHF World Hockey Championships where he led all goaltenders in both save % (.947) and goals-against average (1.34). Woll will look to add his name to the long list of accomplished goaltenders at Boston College, where he'll play next season.

Hardee's IcePlex photo courtesy of Twitter user @acapper4
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