ST. LOUIS -- One of the most celebrated players in USA Hockey history, Keith Tkachuk has enjoyed more than his share of accomplishments and accolades.
But it was what took place earlier this summer in downtown Buffalo, New York, that may mean more than his 538 NHL career goals, his 2002 Olympic silver medal or his 2011 induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
It was on this June evening at the First Niagara Center that Tkachuk heard his son Matthew's name called as the sixth overall pick by the Calgary Flames in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. And before this proud papa was finished embracing his son, he heard the names of four other St. Louis natives called.
With the selection of goaltender Joseph Woll in the third round, six local kids were snatched up by NHL teams. They all played youth hockey for the AAA Blues at Hardee’s Iceplex in nearby Chesterfield, Mo.
"To have six St. Louis kids picked was incredible," said Tkachuk, who played here from 2000 to 2007. "It was a great experience and hopefully we can keep building off of this."
It was further proof that St. Louis is quickly becoming a hockey hotbed to rival any market around the country.
Or as Chris Zimmerman, the president and CEO of the St. Louis Blues, likes to put it, this is the "Heartland of Hockey."
This week nearly 400 coaches have made the pilgrimage to the "Heartland of Hockey" to attend the 2016 National Hockey Coaches Symposium. And on Thursday night's opening session they heard from a host of speakers who trumpeted this town's successes, including an all-star panel of former Blues players, including Tkachuk, Chris Pronger, Jamal Mayers, Rob Ramage and Kelly Chase, all of whom have played key role in the development of future stars.
For these Blues alumni, and many others, they have parlayed their careers with the Blues with a lifelong love affair with the community, and have dedicated countless hours working with local youth hockey associations.
Tkachuk, a native of Melrose, Mass., the pace of life and the quality schools made it an easy choice of where to settle down after wrapping up his career in 2010.
"We love it here," he said. "We knew early on [in my time with the Blues] that this is where we wanted to be. It's been great for me and my family."
When Larry Boyd talks about the growth of hockey in the greater St. Louis area, it's hard not getting caught up in the moment. His enthusiasm is infectious. And who can blame him. As the president of the Missouri Hockey Association for almost 10 years, Boyd has had both a front row seat and played a vital role in how far the sport has come in the Gateway City.
And bringing USA Hockey's marquee coaching event to his hometown makes this long-time coach swell with pride.
"This is awesome," Boyd said. "To have so many dedicated coaches here taking the time away from their jobs and their families to be here just shows their dedication to their craft and to the game."
And it's that same dedication to the game that has led former Blues players to continue to give back to hockey, sharing their knowledge and their passion for the sport with the next generation of St. Louis players.
"We have a town where a lot of athletes when they decide to leave the game they find this community to be a great place to live. They get involved with youth hockey not only to develop their children but other children as well," Boyd said.
"They continue to grow young talent because they love it. They love passing on that knowledge. It's just awesome to see."