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Keller packing big game into small frame for Coyotes

Childhood rink rat now confident rookie forward putting up offensive numbers belying his size

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Columnist

The young mother picked up her 3-year-old son, lifting him so he was high enough to see over the glass, so he could see the streaking, whirling, slamming players. Clayton Keller was small back then -- small now, too -- and he couldn't see without a boost. They had remained in the outside area, peeking into the rink and onto the ice, and so she lofted him, to get a better view.

His eyes widened.

"He just heard all the action and all the sounds and once he saw them playing, I mean, he could not stop watching them," Kelley Keller said. "I couldn't set him down. I had to hold him. He stood up on the window where the sill is, where you look into the rink and he just stood there and watched and he was asking questions and said, 'That's what I want to do. I just want to play.'"

She couldn't answer most of those questions. She didn't know much about hockey back then. She does now, with Clayton, 19, a rookie forward playing for the Arizona Coyotes, and his brother Jake, 15, playing for the U15 AAA St. Louis Blues. 

It all started that day. It had just been something to do, a high school hockey game at the now-closed U.S. Ice Sports Complex in Fairview Heights, Illinois after his learn-to-skate lesson, and Kelley had thought that perhaps this might prove a distraction for her dervish of a son.

"He was a pretty active little boy," Kelley said. "We were always trying to find things to occupy his time and keep him busy and keep him moving."

It was never supposed to be momentous. It was never supposed to be more than a bit of entertainment, if it even was that. It was never supposed to be anything.

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When Bryan Keller was growing up in Texas, there weren't a lot of ice rinks around, no Dallas Stars, no hockey. He had never learned to skate and, by the time he moved to the St. Louis area in 1976 when he was in high school, it was far too late. He didn't want the same thing to happen to his son.

So while Bryan -- a certified public accountant -- was working on winter weekends, Kelley and Clayton would head to the local rink to get Clayton the instruction that his father had missed, something Bryan felt especially keenly when the young couple moved to a house on a pond early in their marriage.

Clayton took to it easily, confidently, this ball of energy.

"He was a natural skater right away," Bryan Keller said. "I think he skated his first lesson."

He got lucky, too. One of the girls in his class had dropped out soon after beginning, abandoning the pair of figure skates her parents had bought her. They were offered to Clayton, with her parents telling his parents, "We're not going to use these. She doesn't want to come back."

Clayton wanted nothing more.

Even before he had mastered skating, he wanted hockey, after that first glimpse of that first high school hockey game. He would ask before every single lesson if he could take his stick and his puck, would ask if he could play like the high school players, would cry when told that it was too soon, that he needed to learn to skate before he could learn to play hockey.

He had gotten that first stick at 4. It was everything to him.

"He said that his stick was magic," Kelley said. "We found him asleep in bed holding onto his stick. He thought it had magic in it and he would score goals."

He wasn't wrong.

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In his first 16 games this season, as a rookie, Clayton Keller scored 11 goals, and through 35 games has 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists). He has weaved and dipped and stripped pucks and deked and otherwise acted far older than his 19 years, his confidence coming across from the very moment he stepped on the ice for Coyotes training camp.

Video: TBL@ARI: Keller caps great passing with PPG

"He's not scared," Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said.

He wasn't then. He isn't now.

He had played three games last season, jumping into the lineup immediately upon signing a contract with the Coyotes after finishing the season at Boston University, had two assists in those three games, had given the team a glimpse of what was to come.

"I worked all summer toward that one goal, to make the team [this season], and when I was at camp I knew that I was ready and that I should be on this team and I will be on this team," said Keller, who was selected No. 7 by the Coyotes in the 2016 NHL Draft. "So it was never a doubt in my mind that I wasn't going to be on this team."

No one, however, could have predicted how Keller would start this season.

"I mean, you're just so happy about it and you're so proud of him, but every once in a while you just go, 'gosh, is this real?' " Kelley said.

It is. 

This, after all, is a player that many in hockey compare to Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane without a sense that it might be putting too much pressure on a kid who is not much more than that, a kid.

"He's just such a dynamic player," former BU teammate and current Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said. "He has Patrick Kane-like skill with hands and vision and his shot, he's got a deceptive release, he's got deceptive speed. Almost just like Patrick Kane.

"You think of Clayton and his potential and what he could be like, he could be a next-generation Patrick Kane."

He has all of that, the skills, the hockey sense, the smarts, the vision, the shot, and he does it all effortlessly. He can battle in the corners with a ferocity belying his size, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame that invites the Kane comparisons.

"He's got the two things that you need to be special: He's got elite talent and he competes at an elite level," BU coach David Quinn said. "His motor never stops and he's tough, he's hockey tough. When you combine his hockey IQ and his skill, which is elite, with his elite competitiveness and how tough he is, you have a special player, and I don't care how big he is."

Especially because in today's NHL, as Quinn pointed out, players don't have to be big anymore. They need to be quick and skilled and fierce. They have to hound the puck. And that is Keller, a player good enough that he's second in the NHL in goals by a rookie this season, tied at 12 with Alex DeBrincat of the Blackhawks and five behind the Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser.

Video: ARI@WSH: Keller steals puck and buries wrister

"It's obviously pretty remarkable what he's been able to do, his start with 11 goals, that's unheard of, but the way he just can control the puck at such a young age and he's not afraid to make big plays, I think that's a big part of it," teammate Christian Fischer said. 

"By no means is he cocky, but when he has the puck he's so confident. It's kind of scary coming to training camp, obviously you don't want to make a mistake, but he's still making those high-risk plays because he knows he can."

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There is a world in which Clayton doesn't play hockey. He learns to skate, sure, but it never goes further than that. He gravitates toward golf -- at which he also excels -- or another sport, like the rest of his peers. He is never tutored by Jeff Brown or Keith Tkachuk, never becomes part of a historic 2016 NHL Draft, in which five players from the St. Louis area are selected in the first round (Matthew Tkachuk, No. 6 by the Calgary Flames; Logan Brown, No. 11 by the Ottawa Senators; Luke Kunin, No. 15 by the Minnesota Wild; Trent Frederic, No. 29 by the Boston Bruins).

"It just wasn't on our radar," Kelley said. "Hockey was not anything that we would have even thought of. Nobody else in our family did."

But there was a local rink, and there was a learn-to-skate class, and there was a chance. And then Kelley lifted her son up, and allowed him to see his future.

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