ST. LOUIS — “It’s OK. I won’t tell anyone.”
Marshall Davidson was your typical bird dog back in September of 2011, standing in a rink in Spruce Grove, Alta. A lifetime hockey man working for his brother John, then the President of Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues, Davidson was sipping lousy coffee and hoping one of these kids would jump out at him.
Then he noticed this average-sized, undrafted, 18-year-old defenceman for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. He had a big shot and a deceivingly good stride. But for some reason the kid was only taking 20-second shifts.
So the old scout sidled across the rink to a group of kids wearing shirts and ties. They were the Oil Barons who weren’t dressed for the game. He could spot them a mile away.
“I asked one kid, ‘Number so and so. Is he hurt?’” Davidson recalls. “The kid said, “Ummm…’
“I said, ‘It’s OK. I won’t tell anyone.’”
“Well he’s playing with a cracked rib….”
And so began the courting of Colton Parayko, a covert, subtle, season-long pursuit that ended with the Blues drafting him in the third round in 2012. Today Parayko is playing Top-4 minutes on one of the league’s top blue-lines, passed over by all 30 teams at his first draft, and 29 more the second time around.
At the time though, Parayko was simply thrilled to be getting regular minutes in Junior A.
“Honestly, I had no idea where it went from there,” he said of hockey in general. “As the season went on, I thought, ‘Maybe I can get a scholarship opportunity out of this…’”
Never drafted by a Major Junior team — heck, he never even played Midget AAA — Parayko had paid the $60 fee to try out in Fort McMurray the previous season. He was one of about 70 hopefuls trying to impress head coach Gord Thibodeau.
“I just made it as the last D-man,” said Parayko. “They gave me a try.”
It is rare today for a scout to find a player that nobody else has identified. With video and social media, the word spreads faster than it did in the old days, when a scout knew how to gauge a player’s height by where his head passed on the cinder block wall as he walked past.
Davidson had one, and he was on the scent.
“I just kept watching him. Quietly you know? In different places.”
He’d only go to see Fort Mac play home games. Or he would catch Parayko in small Alberta towns like Lloydminster or Bonnyville, where few scouts tend to venture. There was a World Junior camp in Calgary that December, a magnet for amateur scouts. Fort McMurray happened to be in town at the same time, so Davidson slipped in for games against the Calgary Canucks and Royals — more to gauge interest than to see Parayko.
Both nights, the place was devoid of scouts. Nobody was on to the Parayko kid!
“From here on in, when our guys come in to see him, we want to keep things real quiet,” Davidson told his boss.
Meanwhile, Parayko — who turns 23 on Thursday — was growing like a weed. He went to junior at nearly 6-foot-2 and left the University of Alaska-Fairbanks at 6-foot-5.
That’s right. Parayko got that scholarship and found perhaps the only place north of Fort McMurray to further his career.
“I had barely made the junior team my first year. I was the seventh D. That was the year they offered me a full ride (at Alaska),” he said. “You’ve got to take it. I didn’t know if I’d get another offer.”
Up until June of 2012, the two had never met each other. Finally, Davidson drove up to Parayko’s hometown of St. Albert — a suburb on the northern edge of Edmonton — and took the kid to Earl’s for lunch. But he waited ‘til a week before the NHL draft.
“I did it on purpose,” he said. “I’d watched him so much, he may not have known me but I knew him. And meeting him finally, his character was just exactly what I assumed it would be.”
“I had no idea he’d been watching me play. It was kind of cool,” said Parayko, who answered a call from Blues executive Al MacInnis a week later telling him he’d been drafted.
“I was relieved beyond belief when we finally got him in the third round,” Davidson said. “I just felt so strongly about this guy, I’d have been happy to take him in the first round.”
Today Parayko is getting votes for the NHL’s All-Rookie team on defence. He shoots the puck harder than 85 per cent of the league, and one-times it like a vet. He’s 6-foot-5 and can skate the puck out of trouble, no problem.
The kid who paid money to try out in Fort McMurray is under consideration for Team North America at the World Cup, while playing in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on St. Louis’ second pair.
Oh, and last week he wrote his final exams — between NHL playoff games — closing out the three classes he was taking this winter, studying on the off days between games throughout the first round. He should graduate with his business degree in the fall.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said after practice last week, shaking his head. “I don’t even know how to describe it. Coming from Midget AA, it seems like so short ago, but so long ago. I never would have put myself in these shoes.”
No one else would have projected this either.
Except for one guy.