Matthew Tkachuk. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
Retired Blues players are providing the spark that’s slowly turning St. Louis into a youth hockey hotbed.
You can’t always get the narrative you want. The St. Louis Blues spearheaded an effort to get their city the world juniors in 2018, but fell in the final round to Buffalo, which has quickly become a hub for big events in the hockey world thanks to Sabres owner Terry Pegula’s building spree.
The Sabres will again do an excellent job with the WJC, just as they did in 2011. But when you consider how good grassroots hockey has become in St. Louis, it’s too bad the U.S. doesn’t have another event for the Gateway Arch city.
Take a look at this year’s draft rankings and you’ll find Missouri flavor. Matthew Tkachuk leads the way as a top-five prospect, while fellow first-round hopefuls Logan Brown, Clayton Keller and Luke Kunin, plus potential second-rounder Trent Frederic, all hail from the area. Drafted natives include goalie Luke Opilka (St. Louis) and Ryan MacInnis (Arizona), both of whom play for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Simply put, it’s getting hot in there.
“The growth in St. Louis is huge and it’s because of the Blues, because of all the past players that are there helping,” Tkachuk said. “Youth hockey has gone through the roof there.”
Many of those prospects have dads who played for the Blues – Keith Tkachuk, Al MacInnis and Jeff Brown – and stuck around once they retired. “Quality of coaching is a critical success factor,” said Blues president Chris Zimmerman. “We have one of the biggest and most engaged alumni associations in the league.”
To keep the momentum going, the Blues started an initiative called Hockey STL 2020. Over the next five years, the franchise will spend $2 million on youth hockey and rink development in the area. The goal is to introduce the sport to 25,000 kids per year and develop 5,000 into players. “When the Blues came to St. Louis, there was one ice rink,” Zimmerman said. “Now there are 21. Our initiative is, ‘Hey, what's the next stage? How do we get new kids into the game?’ ”
Having other elite teams in the area would help. St. Louis is geographically too far to land a major junior team, but the USHL would be a great fit. There’s also the NCAA, which did feature the Saint Louis University Billikens (one of my favorite names) in the 1970s. That squad competed in the CCHA against the likes of Ohio State and Western Michigan, finishing first several times. Now the Billikens play Div. II in the ACHA, and it doesn’t sound like there’s movement to bring them back to Div. I or for a USHL team to spring up.
Arizona State’s partnership with the NHL’s Coyotes has proven to be successful in terms of marketing and awareness, and the D1 Sun Devils aren’t even a year old.
Of course, markets such as Dallas and Florida have been able to nurture elite talent recently without an elite junior or NCAA program, so it’s not a prerequisite, but it stands to reason kids would find it cool to see players not much older than themselves donning hometown jerseys.
In the meantime, the Blues will continue to work the grassroots in Missouri and promote St. Louis as the “Heartland of Hockey.” Zimmerman wants St. Louis to be part of the U.S.’s continuing growth, and he sees the elevated interest in the world juniors. Perhaps when it’s time for another bid to come from the U.S., St. Louis will be the spot, and a hometown kid or two will be wearing the Stars and Stripes at Scottrade Center.