Friday, July 17, 2015

Opilka ready to begin journey towards St. Louis

Goalie drafted by favorite childhood team is a home 
grown talent who moved from nearby Effingham, Ill. as a kid

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the idea came from his uncle, Luke Opilka thought to himself, 'Why not?'

Coming from the city of Effingham, Ill., which has a population of 12,000-13,000 and is roughly 100 miles east of St. Louis, hockey isn't exactly a hotbed for kids in the area.

Effingham is known more for farm land, not showcasing ice surfaces with a penchant for blades of steel.

Opilka's uncle from his mother Lisa's side played ice hockey at the University of Illinois. He had his nephews gravitate towards the game.
(US Hockey photo)
Goalie Luke Opilka grew up playing hockey in St. Louis and not gets the  
opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing for the Blues one day. 

"My uncle played hockey growing up and he's the one that got us into the sport," Opilka said recently at the Blues prospect camp. "... We just picked St. Louis as a place where we wanted to play hockey and we thought we'd be better off here. That's how I wound up in St. Louis." 

So Opilka, now 18, gave hockey a try along with his older brother and the two commuted back and forth with parents John and Lisa Opilka to St. Louis so the boys can fulfill a childhood goal.

And between practices and buying expensive goalie equipment, long rides and a plethora of games, Opilka and his family witnessed what comes along once in a lifetime: hearing Opilka's name called at the NHL Draft and and by Opilka's childhood team growing up, the St. Louis Blues. It was on the recommendation of former Blue Keith Tkachuk.

"From the start of the draft and going in, I was really hoping for the Blues to pick me up," Opilka said. "When it happened, it was really a dream-come-true.

"... All the credit goes to my parents, driving us to and from practice, taking the time out of their day. It wasn't easy on them to commute four times a week for practices and then the weekends for the games."

Upon finishing sixth grade, Opilka's parents decided the commutes were getting to be too much, especially since a younger brother got into the game as well. The family moved to St. Louis on a permanent basis.

"It was just me and my older brother doing the commutes and then once my little brother got into hockey, then we had to move," Opilka said.

For Luke Opilka, a switch to goalie became a reality when he was eight years old playing as a mite. Being a regular skater didn't exactly work out, so he began playing goal, which started at a friend's party.

Upon arriving in St. Louis on a regular basis, Opilka frequented many of the rinks, including the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall, the Blues' practice facility. Opilka began to get recognition playing in midget minors for the AAA Blues in 2012-13, where he was 18-2-1 with a 1.55 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.

From there, the 6-foot-1, 192-pound Opilka worked his way into the United States National Team Development Program playing for the Under-17 and Under-18 teams. He's developed into the No. 1 goalie with the U-18 team after going 25-7 in 36 games with a 2.77 goals-against average, .883 save percentage and three shutouts last season.

Opilka was 14-9-2 with a 3.64 GAA and .864 save percentage in 30 games with the U-17 team in 2013-14. He was also a member of the 2015 U-18 World Championship gold medal team.

Opilka was originally committed to attend and play for the University of Wisconsin, the alma mater of Blues goalie Brian Elliott. But instead of playing a relegated collegiate schedule and having a stock that's rising by the moment, the Blues signed Opilka to a three-year, entry-level contract days after selecting him in the fifth round this past summer at the NHL Draft.

Instead of playing for the Badgers, Opilka will instead man the pipes as the expected No. 1 goalie of the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.

"Instead of possibly playing 20 games or 25 games at the most at the college level, this year he's going to a minimum 50 games (at Kitchener)," Blues director of player development Tim Taylor said of Opilka. "Not saying one is better than the other, but we kind of had our hands on him a little earlier, two teams away from junior eligibility being done. We get a little more control, we get to see him more, we get to help him more. In college sometimes, they want you to back away a little more and wait that three or four years until they're done. In juniors sometimes, it's a little more beneficial to accellerate to be a pro."

And the Blues, who are stockpiling on goalie prospects, want Opilka to be a pro. They want him to work this summer with goalie coach Jim Corsi and a plethora of other coaches, including goalie development coach Ty Conklin, who worked with Opilka at prospect camp.

"Both places, Wisconsin and Kitchener were the only two options I had and they were great places to play, but the prospect of playing more games and to be able to work with a goalie coach full time and Kitchener's a first-class organization," Opilka said. "I don't think I could have gone wrong either way, but I do think Kitchener's the better option."
(US Hockey photo)
Effingham, Ill. native Luke Opilka, who moved to St. Louis as a teenager, 
has played effectively for the US national developmental U-17 and U-18 

Opilka got the chance to shake the hand of Blues' assistant general manager Martin Brodeur upon being selected at the draft, someone all young goalies can look up to and strive to be like. He can only hope that one day to don an NHL jersey -- preferably the Blues -- and compete at the highest level.

"I grew up playing here," Opilka said. "The Mills was like a practice place but I was in a triple-A jersey and to finally put on the real Blues one, it's pretty special.

"... I'm just looking to work hard and hopefully make it become a reality. It's definitely a cool idea. The whole experience has been really cool. It's been a lot of fun."

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