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5th overall: Matthew Tkachuk.

7th overall: Clayton Keller.

11th overall: Logan Brown.

15th overall: Luke Kunin.

30th overall: Trent Frederic.

One-by-one, players in the first round were selected at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo this past spring. Teams worked their way through picks 1-30, and names slowly came off the board.

And to those paying particularly close attention, a trend was forming. An interesting and - if you asked anyone in the hockey world five years ago - unexpected trend.

"I'm blown away," said TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie, when the first round of selections was complete.  

Five players in the opening round hailed from St. Louis, Missouri. Five players from a single city is rare in the first round of any draft. Five American-born players in the top 30 is even uncommon. But five players all from the southern U.S. city of St. Louis? It was rather astounding. There were more natives of The Gateway City taken in the first round of the draft than players from the Western Hockey League.

With 2016 first-overall pick Auston Matthews coming out of Arizona, it seemed the draft was indicative of a changing tide in some of the southern hockey markets. The 2016 Draft saw a cluster of high-end prospective talents coming from the south and with it, a signal that so-called "non-traditional" hockey markets were working on a rebrand of sorts.

As Oilers forward and St. Louis native Patrick Maroon watched the event from his off-season home in Missouri, the significance of how many local products taken in the top 30 was not lost on him. Maroon was amazed to see the results of the draft - amazed, maybe, but not surprised

"It was so good. It really puts St. Louis on the hockey map, as it should be. It's pretty cool to see the city have such an impact on the NHL and it really shows what the future holds for local hockey," Maroon said, glowing with hometown pride.

As it stands today, there are two players active in the NHL who were born in St. Louis: Chris Wideman of the Ottawa Senators, and Maroon. While some prominent former NHL players hail from the Show-Me State, the class of 2016 suggests there will be a sudden injection of talent from the south - much of which was born and bred in Missouri. Maroon, still very connected to the close-knit hockey community in his hometown, has seen the progression.

"I obviously watch the development of those young players down there and how they mature. I'm excited to see what they can bring," said Maroon. 

NON-TRADITIONAL

As far as sports cities go, St. Louis has made a name for itself. They may have seen the departure of an NFL franchise this past year, with the Rams moving to Los Angeles, but their two other major league teams have been giving fans plenty to root for over recent years, on the ice and on the diamond.

The St. Louis Blues have emerged as a consistent force in the NHL's Central Division, earning five consecutive playoff berths dating back to 2012, including a strong run last Spring which saw them come two wins short of advancing to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

The St. Louis Cardinals of the MLB ranked 2nd only to the Los Angeles Dodgers in average attendance in 2016. Along with three World Series Championships in the past ten years, a consistent string of post-season appearances and perennially competitive clubs, there's no doubt the town likes its baseball. But the draw just wasn't there for a young Maroon.

"Pretty much every kid plays ball, but I only played until I was like ten. I didn't really get into it or go much further," he said.

"The passion just wasn't there."

Not into baseball? No problem. The youth football programs in Missouri are well-established and their college teams competitive. The hulking 6-foot-3, 230-pound winger would have looked right at home on an offensive line or breaking tackles as a power running back.

"My dad was a big football guy and was a running back in college, but I never really got into it," said Maroon.

"He was All-American in high school in football, and soccer actually. But I didn't play football a day in my life."

Maroon mentioned that despite not having a professional soccer team in Major League Soccer (MLS) St. Louis is a hotbed for the sport. And even though hockey was emerging as his main interest, he dabbled on the soccer pitch growing up too. It was the realization of another passion that set Maroon on a more unlikely path for a young athlete from Missouri.

"I actually excelled at soccer but once I got into roller hockey, which was a summer sport too, the two conflicted."

Maroon got a taste of hockey before even putting blades to ice. Roller hockey came first. And it triggered a passion that would spill onto ice shortly thereafter. Starting roller hockey at age four led Maroon to what would eventually become a career.

After being selected in the 6th round, 161st overall, by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, Maroon began working his way through the ranks of the hockey world and his love of roller hockey got to ride shotgun.

In fact, Maroon led Team USA to a gold medal at the 2010 IIHF Inline World Championship in Sweden, where he scored seven goals, recording 14 points, in six games en route to the championship victory over the Czech Republic.

Maroon says many of the skills he developed playing roller hockey at such a high level translated to the ice as he honed his craft in both.

"There is a lot of hands and hockey sense involved. I think it helped me develop my game in that way," said Maroon.

The size, skill, hands and coordination it took Maroon to excel at roller hockey seemed to translate well to his play on the ice. But ultimately, Maroon had to make the decision to dedicate himself full time to his pursuit of the NHL. Shortly after the gold medal in inline, and following a couple seasons in the American Hockey League, he was released from the Philadelphia Flyers affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms.

Come the fall of 2010, Maroon spent some time in a holding pattern, not sure if the NHL was still within reach and contemplating his next step. Much like his hometown being considered non-traditional in the hockey world, so too was Maroon's path to the pros.

But that next step presented itself in the form of an opportunity within the Anaheim Ducks organization. After acquiring Maroon via trade from the Phantoms, Anaheim assigned him to their AHL affiliate in Syracuse, where he took the next big step in resuscitating his dream.

Then 23 years of age, the big winger scored 21 goals and recorded 48 points in 57 games after joining the Syracuse Crunch, and the Ducks took notice. Two years later he found himself in an NHL playoff run, and in a highly coveted position too-flanking Corey Perry on the Ducks top line, with Ryan Getzlaf on the other wing.

Not bad for a kid from Missouri who was unsure of his future in hockey just a couple years prior. Maroon tallied seven points (2G, 5A) in 13 games for the Ducks during that 2013-14 post-season. His net-front presence, strong skating and rather quick hands for a man of his size seemed the perfect complement to even the most skilled wingers in the NHL.

TAKING ROOT

There's no question that the great NHL alumni of any team often remain a big part of the community after their time on the ice is all said and done. But for a community that didn't have an abundance of homegrown NHL talent, it seems the growth of the game in Missouri has leaned heavily on St. Louis Blues alumni coming back and carrying the torch.

Growing up in small-town Alberta and playing in two traditional hockey markets in Edmonton and Minnesota, former Oilers winger and current St. Louis Blue Kyle Brodziak said he didn't really know what to expect when he was traded south, but noted that one thing was very apparent right away.

"There's tons of alumni there that base their life in St. Louis after hockey," said Brodziak.

"That was one thing that was really surprising for me to see, is how many guys stick around and raise their families there. Hockey becomes a big part of their kids' lives too. The minor hockey program seems to be getting really good down there."

A clear culmination of this? Matthew Tkachuk, taken 5th overall in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Matthew's father Keith Tkachuk enjoyed a lengthy and successful NHL career, including two stints with the St. Louis Blues spanning over ten years. And when he eventually hung up the skates, retiring with the Blues at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, he chose to stay and settle in Missouri. Keith Tkachuk remains active in the St. Louis hockey community, even helping coach with the St. Louis Blues Peewee AAA hockey program.

Al MacInnis, another St. Louis Blues alumni and NHL Hockey Hall of Fame inductee remains involved in the Blues AAA hockey program as well.

St. Louis Blues Associate Coach Ray Bennett has seen the massive impact of alumni on the local hockey community throughout his 10-season tenure with the club.

"It's upwards of 50 guys, who at some point touched St. Louis as an NHL player and went away and returned, and are active in the minor hockey community," said Bennett.

"The quality of coaching makes St. Louis a bigger overall hockey market than people might consider… When a parent can say, 'gee, my kid could be coached by Al MacInnis, Keith Tkachuk or Jeff Brown,' it really changes things for young athletes' futures."

All five of those St. Louis born prospects taken at this past spring's NHL Draft went through the Blues AAA hockey program.

Another notable alum of the program is none other than Maroon. And he says it was that ever-apparent alumni connection that pushed him to get serious about hockey in the first place.

"I think Jeff Brown was one of my biggest influences. He was my AAA coach and played a lot of years in the NHL. But Kelly Chase (another former St. Louis Blue) is probably who I am closest with. I still talk to him a lot," said Maroon, as he glanced around the Oilers dressing room, thinking back to his minor hockey days.

"When Kelly told me, when I was in midget, that I could play pro hockey some day and had a chance to do really good things, it kind of hit me hard. Like, maybe I should wake up, start working hard and taking care of my body."

That sentiment stuck, because from there on out, Maroon's goals were clear. 

"It's such a good feeling when there's an alumni group there that cares so much about St. Louis hockey. It's pretty special."

That special alumni connection gave Maroon another memorable moment this past spring as the Oilers played their final game at Rexall Place on April 6, 2016.

Maroon, who contributed two goals in the 6-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks to cap off an era for the franchise, was taking in the post-game locker room celebrations when another St. Louis connection walked through the door.

Wayne Gretzky, despite only a short stint with the Blues organization in 1995-96 while playing in the NHL, owns a house in St. Louis. Maroon and The Great One got to chat briefly about their Missouri connection that night.

"Yeah, that was cool," Maroon said with a grin.

"(Wayne) actually has a house right down the street from my condo in St. Louis. It's pretty cool for him to come back and say he loves the city. It's a special feeling being from there."

While on the topic of Gretzky connections, Maroon mentioned his relationship with the middle Gretzky son, Ty, citing they know each other quite well, with Maroon even enrolling his eight-year-old son Anthony in Ty's hockey school this past summer.

While discussing how much he enjoys spending the off-season in his hometown, where he's able to give back to

the hockey community that made him, making mention of his son stirred something behind his eyes.

"When I go home, I hang out with my son every day. That's my focus when I am down there."

The passion he exerts when talking about hockey is matched when discussing his son Anthony.

"One thing I want to do is give back to the St. Louis community wherever I can, whether it's going out to make an appearance and saying hi to young hockey players. When I'm not doing that, I am with Anthony."

With Maroon's little guy already expressing a lot of interest and talent for the sport, don't be surprised if that father-son St. Louis hockey connection reappears when the 2023 NHL Draft rolls around. 

PACK UP THE BIG RIG

After taking over the Oilers general manager role in the summer of 2015, Peter Chiarelli made it clear he had a mandate for the future of the team. He coveted size. He wanted to see "heavy play."

After having the front half of the season to evaluate his roster, the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline rolled around this past spring and Chiarelli pulled the trigger on a deal of which the details trickled through following the actual deadline-A deal that would bulk up the front end.

The Oilers sent a 2016 fourth-round pick and defensive prospect Martin Gernat to Anaheim and received winger Patrick Maroon (A.K.A. Big Rig) in return. Another piece, in addition to the previous acquisition of winger Zack Kassian, that Chiarelli felt would contribute to that "heavy" style of game he sought.

The "Big Rig" headed North and contributed immediately. That chemistry he had with highly-skilled linemates in Anaheim was rekindled when he was slotted in on Connor McDavid's wing where he finished the 2015-16 season with six goals, two assists and 8 points in 15 games played. 

Maroon's combination of size, hands and grit continues to complement the Oilers skilled forwards. He's begun his 2016-17 campaign with a team-leading six goals and eight points through the first 15 games.

Maroon's unique path to becoming a full-time NHLer saw him make stops in more non-traditional markets, but he says making the transition to a more hockey-centric locale has been an amazing experience. In his short time here, Maroon has become somewhat of a fan-favourite. He ensures the feeling is mutual.

"Coming to Edmonton, where you walk out the door and someone recognizes you, it's cool. It's neat to interact with fans and introduce yourself," said Maroon.

"These are the times you cherish because the fans really do care about the players. Just as much as they are excited, we are excited to meet them too. They give a lot of hope for our guys."

Despite enjoying his time in Edmonton, Maroon says it's always nice to head home over the summer. His hometown has quietly made a name for itself in the hockey development world and Maroon can't wait to see what's next.

"It looks like the future is in St. Louis," said Maroon.

"There's still more to come."

Fittingly dubbed The Gateway City, it has become an unexpected gateway to the pros for aspiring young hockey talent in America. Maroon is now just one of many examples of that.

By Cait MacPhail • View More In Depths