As far as assessing hockey potential goes, Kelly Chase
and Al MacInnis
are the types of guys who deserve some credibility.
About four years ago, a raw talent named Patrick Maroon
made one of the best moves of his career by giving them a lot.
Maroon was a 6-foot-3, 250-pound clump of hockey skill bulling his way around the Triple-A level in his hometown of St. Louis. Chase, who like MacInnis is a former player for the St. Louis Blues
, worked for Texarkana of the NAHL and wanted to bring Maroon to that team.
Both Chase and MacInnis had seen Maroon play and marveled at the small-man skills trapped in that way-too-big body. After one of Maroon's games, they pulled him aside and told him he could make something of himself in this game.
"I got slammed back. I was like, 'Wow. No one ever told me that,'" recalled Maroon, now 20.
''I was watching the kid every day going, 'Why do we not have this kid signed yet?''' Chase said, referring to his scouting reports back to Texarkana. ''The same thing kept coming back -- he's lazy, he's out of shape. They (prospects) believe they are committing, but no one has showed them how.''
Chase and MacInnis were more than willing. MacInnis tailored a workout program for Maroon. Chase gave him incentive and guidance.
Thousands of hours of hard labor later, a highly-motivated Maroon seems to have caught on. As a rookie forward for the Phantoms, the now 6-4, 225-pound Maroon ranks tied for ninth among rookie scorers with 31 points (16 goals, 15 assists).
''It happened so quick,'' Maroon said of his dividends. ''It went from one step to the next step to the next step. I don't think it has really hit me yet how close I am (to the NHL).''
What's even more remarkable is how far Maroon has come to reach that precipice.
With Chase's encouragement still ringing in his ears, Maroon traipsed off to Texarkana still very much a project. The city boy had to get used to a much higher level of play and a vastly different type of environment.
''They are all country people, very polite,'' Maroon said of Texarkana. ''We played in a legit barn. It was a good experience. After one game, they'd take our rink down, put down mud for a rodeo. We had to put up our own boards, put in our own ice. It was a struggle, but it was fun.''
Especially since he started getting into serious shape and put up 23 goals and 37 assists in his first year in Texarkana. Maroon's size and sometimes lumbering appearance can be deceiving. He played a lot of roller hockey as a child, a hobby which didn't do much for the perception of his seriousness for ice hockey, but it did help him develop some slick mitts and even slicker moves.
''He's got NHL hands,'' Chase said. ''It's unbelievable. And he's a rink rat.''
Even better, Chase gave Maroon a chance to sniff his way around rinks a lot closer to home the next year. Chase and the rest of the Texarkana ownership group moved the franchise to St. Louis in 2006-07, and Maroon blossomed with an MVP effort of 40 goals and 55 assists in 57 games. He also led St. Louis to the Robertson Cup championship with 23 points in 12 playoff games
''I couldn't have asked for more,'' Maroon said of the whole setup. ''It was golden. You drive 20 minutes to practice, and then drive home.''
Chase, VP of operations for the Bandits, was Maroon's biggest backer by that point, but there weren't a lot of NHL evaluators in that fan club. Maroon dropped to the sixth round of the 2007 draft, 161st overall. The Flyers took him one spot after the hometown Blues said, nah, we don't think so.
''I thought that was going to be my last chance,'' Maroon said of when St. Louis passed him by with pick No. 160. ''I was really worried. I was kind of bummed out. I didn't know who would take me in those later rounds. The Flyers picked me up, and I love it here. I want to let them know they picked me up for a reason and I'm here to make it.''
Maroon had one more season of apprenticeship left before joining the pro game, and he served it in style. Last year, he made the Flyers' eye for talent look good with 35 goals and 55 assists for London of the OHL.
''It's a different breed of players, better hockey. I loved the 'O,''' Maroon said. ''I didn't know I was going to put up 90 points, but I knew I was going to do good enough to help the team win.''
I was really worried. I was kind of bummed out. I didn't know who would take me in those later rounds. The Flyers picked me up, and I love it here. I want to let them know they picked me up for a reason and I'm here to make it.''
-- Flyers prospect Pat Maroon
Maroon has barely broken stride with the Phantoms, where his versatility has impressed coach John Paddock. Maroon's size aside, Paddock resisted the characterization of him as strictly a power forward. Yeah, he can pick up goals around the crease. But Paddock is taken with Maroon's ability to create scoring chances around a wide perimeter in the attacking zone.
''He makes good plays with the puck. He can score a few different ways,'' Paddock said.
''I don't do much dangling. The defensemen are pretty hard. It's not juniors anymore,'' Maroon said. ''It's going good, though. I can't ask for more. I just came in here thinking, be a rookie. I didn't think I would play much. They gave me a chance, I just ran with it.''
Chase follows his protégé's work from a distance, and maybe a lot closer soon. He does radio work for the Blues, raising the possibility that someday he'll call a game that will involve Maroon as a visiting Flyer.
It's an interesting scenario, but it turns out that as a driving force behind Maroon's career Chase had a different storybook turn in mind as the 2007 draft rolled around.
''I recommended Pat Maroon to the Blues every single day,'' he said. "They are still saying the jury is still out. For my money, if I have a 20-year-old kid who is getting 20 goals in the minors, I'm liking my chances. I just want the kid to do well so that he can achieve what he wants to achieve. I expect him to play in the NHL. I would be disappointed if he didn't.''