A couple weeks ago, TJ Friedmann, who grew up in South County and now plays NCAA hockey at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, got an unexpected phone call. It was from Keith Tkachuk.
Tkachuk, who played nine seasons with the Blues and has the third most goals of any American-born player, has the title of director of player recruitment for the team, and one of his jobs is to find undrafted college players, like Friedmann. Tkachuk was calling with an invitation to take part in the Blues’ developmental camp.
The response from Friedmann was not long in coming.
“About 10 seconds,” he said. “It was a quick yes, for sure. I saw it as a great experience and couldn’t turn it down.”
Along with all the draft picks, some of whom will be playing soon at events like the world juniors, and recent college graduates that were in town for the Blues’ development camp that took place last week, there was another constituency on the ice. Six players taking part this week at Centene Community Ice Center were products of St. Louis’ growing hockey community. For them, wearing a Blues jersey, if only a practice jersey in July, was a big deal.
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“It’s special,” Friedmann said. “Growing up, you go to all the games, you watch them, they’re kind of like the idols of the area, they’re legends to you. So being a part of a little part of the organization here at camp, it’s been a good time, getting able to get in, kind of learn some things here and there between the off-ice video they’re doing with us and then the on-ice application. It’s been a good experience for us.”
Along with Friedmann, who like the others played a couple of seasons of high school hockey — in his case at CBC — before beginning the itinerant life of a young hockey player in North America and playing juniors elsewhere, were five other locals: goalie Jake Barczewski , from O’Fallon, Missouri, who is now playing at Canisius; defenseman Christian Berger, who played with SLU High and is now at Penn State; goalie Jack Caruso, who also played with CBC, and was a backup keeper on last season’s NCAA champions at Denver; Garrett Dahm, a forward from Swansea, who played at Belleville High and is now at Mercyhurst; and forward Ryan Roth of Ladue, who went to Chaminade and is now at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. All of them played at some point with the AAA Blues, and Caruso and Dahm also played with the Chesterfield Falcons as well.
“When we were looking for guys to bring in,” said Blues director of player personnel Tim Taylor, whose responsibilities include the development camp, “we like to keep the numbers small but there’s so many St. Louis kids now and I’m learning that there’s so many around, it’s nice to bring them in because this is who they love, the St. Louis Blues, right? And they’re all really good players. It’s nice to bring them and get them involved and give them a little taste too. And I think it’s great for the organization to do that. And it’s good for those kids to get that experience.”
The goals, for instance, got to work with both David Alexander, the team’s goalie coach, and Dan Stewart, the organization’s goalie development coach.
“There were little details we talked about,” Caruso said, “pointers and tips along the way. So I’m taking that away and in a more broader overview, taking in the whole experience of what it takes at this level, where we all want to be. There’s a lot you can pull from it.”
The St. Louis hockey community is still small enough that when Friedmann heard from Tkachuk, he wasn’t totally star-struck. Tkachuk and another former Blue, Jeff Brown, had coached Friedmann with the AAA Blues. Many of the Blues who have stayed in St. Louis after their playing days have remained active in the sport.
Many of the group know each other through training together with Jeff LoVecchio at RIPT Hockey and skating together at Maryville’s hockey facility in Chesterfield. If the six, who posed for a group picture together after the final game of camp, didn’t know each other personally before camp, they certainly knew their names (and in several cases, played with one of their brothers).
“St. Louis follows St. Louis really well,” Caruso said. “If somebody in the St. Louis area does something big, it seems like everybody knows about it. We all know each other or have heard about each other, so it was cool.”
It may have been only four days for these players, but it was an experience that will stay with them, especially as they go back to their college teams in a few months.
“It was obviously a very cool and unforgettable experience,” Caruso said. “not only myself but for all the St. Louis kids. It’s something we’re very grateful both to (GM) Doug Armstrong and Tim Taylor for giving us that opportunity to attend camp and experience it and enjoy the whole week. … Just kind of getting a taste what it’s like being around an NHL day-by-day situation, and on top of that, being around the guys and getting to know some of them.”
“I grew up going to all the Blues games,” Friedmann said. “I loved coming and watching Keith Tkachuk, Al MacInnis, all those guys, Chris Pronger, all the legends from back in the day. So it was a fun experience growing up, they really helped grow the game in St. Louis.
“It’s been a lot of fun for sure.”