Gateway To The Top

While no one following college hockey with any regularity is ready to compare the amateur hockey programs in St. Louis, the host for the upcoming Frozen Four, to those in Minnesota, Boston or Michigan, all those involved in St. Louis hockey have to be smiling these days.

The explosion of amateur hockey in St. Louis, which began in the late ’60s with the birth of the NHL Blues, has finally began to pay dividends with the appearance of more than a few significant contributors to Division I U.S. college programs today. Seven sophomores are having an impact this year, with a handful of juniors and freshmen joining in the fun.

Jeff LoVecchio, one of three Chesterfield natives who were sophomore forwards this year, finished as Western Michigan’s third-leading scorer for the 2006-07 season, racking up 19 goals and 15 assists for 34 points.

Ben Bishop of Maine is among the rising crop of talent coming out of St. Louis and its environs (photo: Melissa Wade).

Ben Bishop of Maine is among the rising crop of talent coming out of St. Louis and its environs (photo: Melissa Wade).

Travis Turnbull, the son of former Blues player Perry, had eight goals and 17 points for CCHA rival Michigan in the recently completed season. Turnbull’s coach at Michigan is former Blues legend Red Berenson.

Sean Muncy contributed eight goals and 17 points for Brown of the ECACHL, while Joe Vitale of St. Louis notched seven goals and 16 points for Hockey East’s Northeastern Huskies, fourth-best on the team.

Rounding out the sophomore forwards is Webster Groves native Thomas Fortney, who scored six goals and 13 points for Hockey East’s New Hampshire Wildcats.

Anchoring the defense is Denver’s Chris Butler, who was arguably the team’s MVP this year. His 10 goals and 27 points in 39 games were tops among all Pioneer defenseman and fifth overall on a team featuring balanced scoring with a strong duo guarding the nets.

While three of the players mentioned above had legitimate shots at advancing to this year’s Frozen Four in their hometown and experiencing a “dream come true” storyline, only Maine goaltender Ben Bishop will have that opportunity among St. Louis’ outstanding sophomore class.

A native of Des Peres, Bishop will be all the talk leading up to the first national semifinal on Thursday afternoon. Assuming the Black Bears’ starting duties from All-American netminder Jimmy Howard in 2005-06 as a freshman, Bishop posted a 21-8-2 record with a 2.28 goals against average and a .907 save percentage. He then led Maine to its 10th appearance in the Frozen Four, as Maine fell to eventual NCAA champion Wisconsin in the semifinals.

Bishop followed up his stellar freshman season, when he was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team, with an identical 21-8-2 record this year entering the Frozen Four. His season was somewhat derailed by a groin injury that eventually forced him out of the lineup for four games late in the year, all Maine losses.

But Bishop returned for the NCAA regionals last weekend, stopping 67 of 69 shots in wins over St. Cloud and Massachusetts. In an era when premier college goaltenders seem to be multiplying every year, Bishop finished sixth in the NCAA with a 2.08 GAA and eighth in the country with a .925 save percentage.

While he didn’t play hockey himself while growing up in St. Louis, Bishop’s father, Ben Sr., followed the Blues as a kid. With some help from his brother-in-law, Dad remembers taking Ben out for his first skate like it was yesterday.

“My son started playing when he was four and a half years old, and hockey has always been his passion,” said the elder Bishop. “Even though he was a very good athlete at four different sports, hockey was what he wanted. He was able to make it into the Blues AAA program, and as hockey has evolved over the years, it has become more of a full-time sport. By the time he was in the ninth grade, he committed to hockey.”

Turnbull, Fortney, Butler and Bishop were all teammates on the St. Louis Blues AAA teams growing up. Butler, for one, credits the many former NHL Blues players who have stayed in the St. Louis area and currently coach in the amateur ranks as a factor in the explosion of St. Louis natives now playing major college hockey.

“Mike Zuke and Perry Turnbull both have sons that are my age and they both coached teams that I was on when I was around 12-14,” Butler said following a team practice in January. “Having guys around like them, Basil McRae, Al MacInnis and Tony Twist really helped. Anytime you can get a guy who has played at the highest level to coach and give back to the area I think is tremendous. You look up to them and then they are coaching you at the same time. It is pretty special.”

After playing with the AAA Blues, Bishop played his junior year for Chaminade High School in St. Louis before spending his senior year with the Texas Tornado, where Bishop’s 35-8 record and a 1.93 GAA led the Tornado to the 2005 NAHL Championship. During his year in Texas, Maine assistant coach and primary recruiter Grant Standbrook began pursuing Bishop. Shortly after they were introduced to Standbrook, both Bishops felt early on that Maine was the place for Ben Bishop to continue his career.

“Grant has a great pedigree of finding and training goalies for college hockey, many of which go on to the NHL,” added Ben Sr. “While recruiting Ben, Grant spent some time with Ben and the two hit it off very well. They bonded almost immediately and he has really been a tremendous mentor to Ben. I would say in the last two years Ben’s game has gone from a C game to a B+ game.”

Both Bishops will be busy this weekend, as Ben Sr. is a board member on the St. Louis Sports Commission, which is hosting the Frozen Four.

“I have volunteered my time over the last couple of years,” he added, “to help the commission successfully plan and execute our strategy for the Frozen Four in part with the thought that hopefully my son might be a part of the action. We knew that with Maine’s reputation of having a very competitive program by being in the Frozen Four a number of times, that there was a very good chance this could happen.”

Bishop has already experienced a number of career highlights, especially for a 20-year-old, but reaching the Frozen Four in his first two seasons with Maine and being selected by the hometown Blues in the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft have to be right at the top.

Another one of Bishop’s and Butler’s teammates on the AAA Blues is enjoying a pretty respectable year. Colorado Avalanche rookie Paul Stastny remains in a tight race with Russian phenom Evgeny Malkin for NHL’s Calder Trophy as top rookie as the regular season enters its final week.

Although he wasn’t born in St. Louis, Stastny moved to the area with his family when he was eight years old after his father, NHL Hall of Famer Peter, signed with the Blues. Both he and his brother Yan, who was recently traded to the Blues organization, noticed how the hockey landscape has changed in St. Louis over the years.

“When my brother played,” Stastny recalled recently, “you could only find ice maybe a couple of times a week, but as I got older, ice became more available. The talent grew more and more every year, and with more St. Louis players going on the play in college, the skill, talent and dedication has improved in St. Louis hockey. ”

While Bishop will be the star attraction this week, he won’t be the only St. Louisan playing in the Frozen Four, as Michigan State junior defenseman Jeff Dunne from Grover will be lining up against him on Thursday. Dunne has contributed one goal and 11 points from the blueline for the Spartans so far this year.

Goaltender Charlie Effinger, who hails from nearby Belleville, Illinois, is another junior who made an impact this year. He shared time this season with Jeff Zatkoff in the nets for the Miami RedHawks, posting a 10-6-1 record with a 2.67 GAA for a team that reached the NCAA tournament.

Two freshmen also burst onto the college scene this year, led by Chesterfield’s Michael Davies. Davies 11 goals and 24 points ranked third on the team this year for Wisconsin. St. Louis’ Kyle Kraemer followed Joe Vitale to play for Northeastern this year, finishing second on the Huskies’ scoring charts with seven goals and 19 points.

Other St. Louis natives to play Division I hockey this year included Eric Slais with Brown, Andrew Meyer with Quinnipiac, Derek Pallardy and Brock Wilson with Merrimack, and Ian Tallett and Sam Bozoian for Harvard.

While most of the local collegiate players won’t get the opportunity, perhaps Dunne or both Ben Bishops will have the opportunity to see a dream come true come Saturday night.