When you're 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds, it's pretty hard for people to overlook you. Yet that wasn't always the case for 22-year-old Colton Parayko, who now patrols the blue line for the St. Louis Blues.
"When I was younger, I really didn't know if hockey was going to be my thing because my friends were so successful and they were being drafted into the WHL and I wasn't," explained the rookie from St. Albert, a suburb of Edmonton, Alberta. "I was just a little thing back then playing Midget AA and having fun and I was happy with that because that's the reason you play -- to have fun. Then my coach knew the coach at Fort McMurray in Junior A and arranged for me to try out the next season. In the meantime, I grew six inches that year. I went to camp and made the team."
The following summer, his team -- the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League -- participated in the inaugural Junior Club World Cup in Omsk, Russia, featuring eight junior teams from eight countries. The Oil Barons didn't win, but Parayko, having been passed over in the NHL draft earlier in the summer, caught the eye of a European scout who then called his friends at the Blues.
"We got a hot tip about a big defenseman from Alberta who played in this tournament in Russia," said Dan Ginnell, an amateur scout for St Louis. "Our first opportunity to really take a look at him was at the World Junior A Championship that fall. He played for Canada West, who went on to win the tournament, and I thought he played really well there and Marshall Davidson, who was one of our western scouts at the time, started following him around Alberta. After a few games, he alerted me that the kid was playing lights-out and I needed to come up and see him again."
They knew Parayko was flying under the radar because there were many times they'd go see him play and be the only scouts there, but the more they saw of him and the more they learned about him, the more excited they got about his potential and the more they wanted him.
Heading into their final meetings before the 2012 NHL draft, Ginnell and Davidson, who is now with the Columbus Blue Jackets, pushed for the Blues to take a chance on Parayko.
"We knew he could add a lot of muscle to his body. We knew he had the hockey sense and the way he saw things on the ice and he could shoot the puck like a cannon. So, we thought, down the road, that he'd have a great chance to be able to put it all together," Ginnell said. "We already liked his skating, especially for a big guy. He was always trying to get up in the play and create offense and his on-ice character looked outstanding. He looked like a leader. There were so many great qualities about him and we knew with him already committed to play at Alaska that he'd have time and opportunity to develop and we were really intrigued by him.
"We had to push for him though. We're talking about a kid that was already passed over once in the draft and was playing Tier II, but we thought he was worth the risk. We also didn't want to wait around and risk losing him to another team in a later round. We had two picks in the third round that year and we were confident that we could get him then. So, we stepped up and made our case and we got him. I don't think even he saw it coming."
Parayko didn't have a clue.
"I had no idea they were even watching me." Parayko explained. "Then at the end of the season, I met with Marshall Davidson and he told me they were interested and that's the only time I heard from anyone at the Blues until I got a phone call from Al MacInnis welcoming me to St. Louis because they had just drafted me. I was just sitting on my couch watching TV. I didn't even know what to say. I couldn't believe it was real. I had no idea what was going on, but I was obviously grateful for the opportunity."
Parayko spent the next three seasons at the University of Alaska working on his skating, his shot and effectively using the big frame he had now grown into.
"Although he was quite strong as an 18-year-old, being at Alaska allowed him to get stronger and he's such a dedicated kid. He doesn't do anything halfway," Ginnell said. "He put so much work in and gained so much muscle. Then, being able to play a big role as a freshman and get so many minutes against older players really benefited him too. They really did such a good job developing him at Alaska and now, at 22, he's turned into the player we projected him to be and we're obviously very pleased with how he's playing."
He's not the only one.
"He had a very good camp in Traverse City and, when you have someone that looks that dominant, you say to yourself, 'OK, we're going to give this guy a full go,'" Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He ended up playing in every exhibition game except for one based on how good he was and he earned a spot on opening night. Then, when [Kevin] Shattenkirk went down early in the season, we gave him a shot on the power play and when we found him to be a good player in that situation, we were convinced that we had a more complete player in him than we thought. We were surprised, but it's funny because none of this is surprising to our coaches in the AHL based on what they saw at the end of last season. This is exactly what they thought would happen."
Along with his two-year, entry-level contract with the Blues, Parayko also signed an amateur contract with their AHL affiliate in Chicago to finish out the season. He learned a lot in those 22 games with the Wolves, but he wanted to learn more. So, he spent most of the summer in St. Louis training with his future teammates in an effort to learn what it actually meant to be a pro and gain any sort of advantage he could heading into this season.
"There's no one thing I wanted to focus on," Parayko said. "I think it's good to work on everything, even the things you're already good at. No one is perfect at anything, so you are always in a position to do better and improve if you want to. I want to, so I do my best to do that."
His impressive work ethic left a positive impression not only on the management and coaching staff, but also his teammates.
"He's a guy that wants to be here and he's willing to do whatever it takes and if that means spending the summer in St. Louis working out and gaining that extra bit of strength -- and he's chiseled out of stone, so I'm not even sure that he needed it -- but he showed that dedication and when things started, he was right up to speed and didn't miss a step in camp and stole some spots and we love that kind of competition here," Blues captain David Backes said.
"He's seen and not heard and if you could mold rookies out of him, you'd do that because he's doing everything right -- asking all the right questions, putting in the extra time and performing and doing a great job on the ice. You really can't ask for more from a rookie -- or any teammate for that matter. He's got a bright future ahead of him."
With five goals and six assists in 16 games, he leads all rookie defensemen in both goals and points. His booming shot, powerful stride, calm demeanor, on-ice vision, sound defensive positioning and big body have the Blues excited to see what impact Colton Parayko could have on this team.
For Parayko, the goal is simple.
"Growing up as a kid you dream of playing in the NHL and this is better than I even thought it could be," Parayko said. "I'm so grateful for this opportunity and the best way I can say thank you is to work hard every day and make them happy they took a chance on me."