ST. LOUIS — Young hockey players in St. Louis don’t have to look far to see what the future can hold for the area’s brightest stars.
When the Blues signed forward Paul Stastny and Chris Butler this past offseason, they didn’t just get one of the league’s best centers and a reliable veteran defenseman. They brought home two St. Louis natives who are providing plenty of inspiration for the next generation.
It wasn’t long ago Butler and Stastny were climbing the youth ranks, which included time at Chaminade Prep under coach Matt Buha, who now lives in Texas. High school hockey plays a secondary role to elite junior teams, but Stastny joined the team for part of one season and played for Buha with the St. Louis Select program and Blues AAA team, while Butler spent two seasons with Chaminade.
"It means a lot to see these kids make the NHL," Buha says. "There were some kids that could have but didn’t."
Still, they’re far from the only local stars to make it all the way to the top. Another of their Chaminade teammates, Ben Bishop, started his career with the Blues and has shined this season as the top goaltender for the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
Those successes aren’t lost on the latest crop of Chaminade players, even if the program is going through a bit of a down year. New coach Kiley Hill has some connections to the Stastny family in the tight-knit St. Louis hockey community, and others have ensured his players are well aware of those who came before them.
Stastny and Butler haven’t forgotten their roots, either, and their appearance at the school prior to the season still generates plenty of enthusiasm. Chaminade forwards Andrew White and Sam Johnson animatedly described their surprise when the two Blues unexpectedly showed up to display their new jerseys, and Jack Sheehan says it gave the seniors a new appreciation for their school.
"Our workout coach told us he’d watch Stastny and he’d just stand in the corner and he’d move around five guys, barely even move," Sheehan says. "They’d just all come at him and then he’d go score."
Buha always knew Stastny would have a professional career if he put in the work, thanks to his natural vision and confidence in his skills. He became a standout as a sophomore during the 2001-02 season, the one year he played at Chaminade before moving on to higher levels.
Butler took a little longer to develop, just as he did this season when he earned a call-up from Chicago in late November and played well enough to stay in St. Louis ever since. Much like Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, Buha says over time it became clear Butler could skate with just about anyone.
"He’s not the kind of guy (who) if you were in the top row of the stands you would say, ‘Look at No. 4,’ because he didn’t really stand out," Buha says. "He did not make mental mistakes and he did not take retaliatory penalties."
That consistency earned him a spot in the regular rotation, though he’s the first to admit he went through an adjustment period after joining the Blues. Stastny echoes those sentiments and an early shoulder injury made it even tougher, but his eight points in the first five games of January show he’s starting to live up to the hype that came when he left the Colorado Avalanche last summer.
"I think when he got booed in Colorado (on Dec. 23) he settled in," Hitchcock says. "I think the cord was cut; he’s playing for us now. He has no ties to Colorado anymore other than he’s still got friends there, but there’s no emotional ties."
Stastny says his coach might be overdramatizing things a bit, but he’s finally hitting his stride and starting to feel comfortable back in his old home. Things have changed and enough of his friends have left that he says he rarely gets asked for tickets, but where he came from still matters to most fans.
His move to St. Louis provides more motivation to improve for Chaminade senior defenseman Noah Catt, and he’s probably right when he says Butler and Stastny playing nearby should help the school’s recruiting efforts. Plenty of talent continues to develop in the area, and the chance to face off against future NHL skaters provides a boost to the sport’s popularity.
"It’s cool watching these guys and being like, ‘Hey, I played with that kid when I was a mite,’" Catt says. "He could skate backwards and I couldn’t and stuff. It’s a good time."