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Jr. Blues prove NHL level can be reached

January 5, 2011
by Matt Mackinder |

Chris Butler, who played his college hockey at the University of Denver, is now patrolling the Buffalo Sabres' blue line.

In the 20-plus-year history of the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL), numerous players have gone from the league to higher level junior leagues and Division I, III and ACHA college hockey.

Some even sign professional contracts.

And three alumni have gone on to play in the National Hockey League.

A trio of former St. Louis Jr. Blues - Chris Butler, Paul Stastny and Yan Stastny - has seen time in the NHL with Paul Stastny and Butler currently playing for the Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres, respectively.

All three also honed their talents in the United States Hockey League (USHL) and Division I universities.

The Stastnys are sons of NHL Hall of Fame forward Peter Stastny.

Their stories show that while the NA3HL (formerly the Central States Hockey League) may be an untapped resource for NHL scouts, hard work and the resolve to succeed can win out.

Former Jr. Blues head coach Jack Behan, who stepped down after St. Louis won the Tier III Junior A national tournament last season, coached all three players and knew when he had them as teenagers that high-caliber college hockey and the NHL would be in their futures.

“Yan came to us as a 15-year-old (turned 16 during the season) for the 1998-1999 season,” said Behan. “He was a terrific skater and had such a good feel for the game. He also had a certain edge to his play, definitely a true competitor. I do recall being asked how far he could go at the time and I was confident that his determination and instincts would give him the opportunity to play in the NHL.”

Stastny, who played in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) with the St. Louis Sting, wound up at the University of Notre Dame (CCHA) and has played mostly in the American Hockey League, but does have 91 games and 16 points to his credit at the NHL level with Edmonton, Boston and St. Louis. He is playing for CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) this season.

Paul Stastny is a standout forward and alternate captain with the Avalanche and played for the United States during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He also skated two seasons for the University of Denver (WCHA) before signing with Colorado, the team that drafted him in the second round of the 2005 NHL draft. He’s now in his fifth season with Colorado having never spent a day in the minors and recently recorded his 300th NHL point.

Behan reflected on the younger Stastny when he arrived in St. Louis as a 15-year-old prodigy in 2001.

“The first thing you noticed about Paul is that he was never satisfied unless the puck ended up in the net,” Behan said. “That was his mentality in practice and it carried into games. In fact, he would keep track in practice how many goals he scored. He also would keep track of almost everyone on the team and if he wasn't the leading scorer in practice, he wasn't a happy kid.

“While Yan had a great sense for the game, Paul brought a sense that only the great ones have. You watch him on film and would realize he knew where the puck was going to be before the puck got there. Just an amazing talent.”

Some scouts had issues with Paul’s skating, but Behan said those kinks would work themselves out in time.

“Although many had questions about his skating, my response to them was to just give this kid a chance and he’ll succeed,” said Behan. “No doubt in my mind he would be an NHL star.”

Stastny scored 45 points in 42 games in his first season in Denver to help the Pioneers win the WCHA regular-season and playoff titles and then its second straight NCAA title by scoring two power-play goals in the championship game of the 2005 Frozen Four against North Dakota. Stastny was also WCHA Rookie of the Year and was part of the WCHA All-Rookie Team and the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team.

A point of irony, too, is that when Paul was a rookie with the Avalanche, he was mentored by Joe Sakic, who himself had a familiar mentor when he played for the Quebec Nordiques - Peter Stastny.

While comparing the skill sets of Yan and Paul, Behan said both were different, but both effective. The two brothers did have one thing in common, though.

“The one thing that stood out about both the Stastnys is their old-school type of family values,” said Behan. “Both players are class acts and were an absolute pleasure to coach.”

Butler played for Behan as a 16-year-old in 2002-03 and was a standout defender for the Jr. Blues.

“While his physical presence wasn't yet developed, he was certainly an impact defenseman for us,” Behan said. “He had the most poise of any player I have ever coached - simply unflappable. He also showed such a great work ethic and seriousness that I thought he would get his chance to play in the NHL. Chris, too, was a joy to coach - a real competitor and someone who was very serious about improving himself.”

Butler also played at Denver and has since skated in 126 games over the past three seasons with the Sabres.

Behan also beamed about the success he had with St. Louis in helping players move up to the highest rung on the college hockey ladder.

“In my 12 years with the Jr. Blues, we had 24 players move on to NCAA Division I,” said Behan. “Plus, right now, four players from last season's national championship team have already had serious Division I interest. So I would expect at least 28 players from my 12 years reaching the Division I level.”


BATTLE CREEK JR. REVOLUTION: Mike Flanagan, a former head coach of the team when it was known as the Grand Rapids Jr. Owls, is now an assistant coach with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League, the top affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

CHICAGO HITMEN: Garrett Bartus, a former Chicago Force netminder, is currently in his second season at the University of Connecticut (Atlantic Hockey) and also played two-and-a-half seasons in the NAHL with the Mahoning Valley Phantoms and St. Louis Bandits. He joined UConn at the semester break last January.

CLEVELAND JR. LUMBERJACKS: Brandon Bayer and Matt Berger, a pair of defensemen from last year’s team, are college freshmen at Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association schools in Wisconsin. Bayer plays for Concordia University and Berger with Marian University.

FLINT JR. GENERALS: Forward Myles McCauley is now with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League after stints the past three years with the Plymouth Whalers, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. McCauley scored twice in his debut with Penticton on Dec. 8.

METRO JETS: Eric Ehn, a 2007 Hobey Baker Award finalist while playing for the U.S. Air Force Academy (Atlantic Hockey), graduated from the Academy in 2008 and is now stationed at Minot Air Force Base in Minot, N.D., in the space and missiles field. Ehn played for the Jets during the 2000-01 CSHL championship season and also during the national Junior B championship season of 2001-02.

MICHIGAN MOUNTAIN CATS: A former player for the Motor City Chiefs, forward Austin Mattson played the 2007-08 season with the NAHL’s Marquette Rangers, the following season with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers, last year with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers and is now back with Sioux City this year.

PEORIA MUSTANGS: Defenseman Cole Ruwe played four seasons at Nichols College (ECAC Northeast) and is now in his second full pro season. He skated last season for the Bloomington PrairieThunder of the International Hockey League and this year with the Missouri Mavericks of the Central Hockey League.

PITTSBURGH JR. PENGUINS: Vincent Somma, Pittsburgh’s leading scorer a season ago with 31 goals and 78 points, has five goals and 16 points this year with the NAHL’s Chicago Hitmen.

QUAD CITY JR. FLAMES: David Jacobson, a former goalie for the Jr. Flames, has a 17-8-2 record this year with the Janesville Jets of the NAHL. Jacobson also has an NAHL-best five shutouts, as well as a 2.08 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.

QUEEN CITY STEAM: Forward Chris Lochner, who led the Steam in scoring two seasons ago with 85 points in 45 games, is fifth in scoring for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL with a 6-9-15 line through 25 games.

ST. LOUIS JR. BLUES: Two players from the 2007-08 team - forwards J.P. Burkemper and Jack Berger - are college freshmen this season with Burkemper at Minnesota State-Mankato (WCHA) and Berger at Princeton (ECAC). Both also played in the USHL for the Des Moines Buccaneers.

TOLEDO CHEROKEE: Forward Andrew Kolb, a Michigan Tech (WCHA) recruit, is leading the NAHL’s Michigan Warriors in scoring this season with 16 goals and 31 points in just 18 games. Kolb started the season in Muskegon, but was acquired in November by the Warriors.

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