By: Robert Desimone (@DesimoneAZ), Special to WCHA.com
"You kind of daydream a little, with a big athletic player like that, thinking what he could turn into."
The almost prophetic words of former Alaska Nanooks Head Coach Dallas Ferguson, reminiscing about the first time he saw Colton Parayko on the ice in juniors. It was memorable for many reasons, but as you peel back the proverbial onion, you begin to uncover the story of a hockey player whose success is rooted far beyond his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame.
Hockey coaches scour the junior ranks across the world, constantly looking for the next superstar. Rankings are published evaluating players on size, speed, skill and countless other attributes, with coaches at the college and pro level constantly looking for the right mix that will make the next star. What hit Ferguson most, however, was not one of those rankings or the obvious size Parayko brought to the ice.
"What really stood out to me was his character and how he played," Ferguson said. "I think they were down 3-0 and with some guys, their body language tells you they're losing. The way he was approaching every shift, you would have never thought he was losing the game."
A post-game meeting with Parayko, despite the loss, re-affirmed Ferguson's feeling on that all-important word, character.
"His demeanor about losing a game lopsided like that was very professional and he was very appreciative that you took the time to come down and talk with him. There were a lot of character qualities that stood out to me."
It's a story that begins to paint a picture of Parayko's journey that led the defenseman to sign a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the St. Louis Blues this past offseason.
Parayko, 24 (May 12, 1993), grew up in St. Albert, Canada with an older sister, Kendra, older brother, Bryce, and younger sister, Kennedy. Like many in Canada, the close-knit family grew up with various activities, including hockey. Parayko also dabbled in racing motocross dirt bikes as Bryce participated in a racing circuit throughout Alberta. Through the various sports and activities the Parayko's participated in, one important theme from their parents continued to shine through.
"My parents really wanted to make sure that when we set our minds to something, we did our best at it."
A simple concept, told to many, but truly taken to heart by Parayko as his hockey career continued to develop. In Parayko's crosshairs, though, was not focusing on college or the NHL, but continuing to set his mind at getting better.
"To be honest I didn't really think about [playing in college] until my first game in Junior A," Parayko remembers. "I played the showcase with all the teams from the Alberta Junior Hockey League and remember talking to a few schools after my first game. I kind of thought it was crazy, but it was cool."
His focus paid off and, as schools accumulated in the recruiting process, it was Alaska that made it to the top of the list.
"When I was there it kind of seemed to fit what I like, smaller city, more tight-knit, it felt comfortable," Parayko said. "I met some of the guys and they were really good to me, it felt like you could make it a place that felt like home with people there."
A small town, close knit culture that, at times, seems hard to find these days, but a culture that is the true fabric of Fairbanks.
"It's unique," Ferguson added. "It's amazing how many people you meet that came here for a summer to work or just for an expected short period of time and end up spending the rest of their lives. It tells you a lot about it and I think the people in the interior of Alaska are very passionate and loyal people, they care a lot and have good character."
It's that character word that continues to surface, and why it was such a natural fit for Parayko at Alaska.
"Obviously Coach Ferguson and the coaching staff did a good job of making sure I felt good and showed me everything they had to offer, so I jumped at the opportunity and thought it was going to be great."
That commitment was just the beginning, though. It was a new challenge for Parayko, one outside of his comfort zone and away from home. As he settled into the college life, adapting to the higher quality of the college game became the next challenge.
"There are things at every level, the players continue to get better," Parayko said. "The better players continue to move on and the competition is always getting better, so size and speed of the game were definitely the biggest adjustments."
And, as the adjustment on the ice was made, the tight-knit community off the ice was verified.
"We had such a close group, pretty much everything we were doing together as a team," Parayko said. "I remember having classes with 6 or 7 guys together, we'd go to class every day, then go to lunch together and do the homework together. Then every second week we're on the road traveling together, so it made it such a tight-knit group. I got along with everyone on the team every year I played there, it was just a great group of people that went there."
The closeness of the team proved fruitful on the ice as the team continued to improve. Alaska finished 12-20-4 (11th in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association) in 2011-12, the year prior to Parayko's arrival. In his freshman season, Parayko posted four goals and 13 assists as Alaska improved to 17-16-4, good for sixth in the conference. Following conference realignment that summer, the Nanooks finished third in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) at 18-15-4 in 2013-14.
"In the WCHA, I felt like the conference was tight, the games were close," Parayko said. "It's a league where you're potentially playing against 24-25 year olds, players that are fully developed, strong and difficult to play against. You had to make sure you win every weekend, or you'd be jammed up in the middle. It felt like if you win a weekend you could jump up a couple spots, it was always that competitive of a league, so it's a good league to jump into professionals from."
A close-knit group of guys, a team playing in a competitive league trying to win a national championship…oh, and a full schedule of classes. All part of the unique opportunity to play a collegiate sport, and critical in the development of thousands of young men and women in intercollegiate athletics preparing for their futures.
"The number one thing is the independence you must have," Ferguson said of the college experience. "The buzz word is time management. They have a pretty vicious schedule, from class to class, training, homework, sleep – it's a pretty intense schedule and I think what [Parayko] learned through that is you have to have discipline."
All part of preparing for the future, which, for many college athletes, is doing something other than playing sports. But they are universal values and experiences that are critical and often overlooked.
"It teaches you a lot of things about yourself and it's really a segue into your hockey career or your professional career," Ferguson said. "Every team and every program can say this, but we've had a lot of great people come through our program that are doing great in life, are great family men and were great teammates and that's what you're looking for."
And, for a select few like Parayko, the combination of those values, along with the adequate size and skill, can lead to a promising career in professional sports. That decision came after Parayko's junior season, when he was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Year for the second-straight campaign after tallying six goals and 17 assists, while Alaska finished fourth in the league with an overall record of 19-13-2.
"The second half of his junior year before he went pro he just started to dominate the game," Ferguson said. "He was ahead of everybody physically, he was never out of a play and never lost any battles. He was holding onto the puck and doing things with such ease. At that point, I thought he was ready to go and take his game to the next level."
And that's exactly what Parayko did at the end of the 2014-15 season, making the difficult decision to turn pro. But turning pro didn't complete the college journey for Parayko. While many athletes make it to the professional ranks thinking someday they may complete their degree, Parayko made a commitment to school and it was important to finish that commitment.
Just one year away from graduating with a degree in business, Parayko pulled double-duty during his rookie campaign in the NHL, as he also attempted to graduate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"I really, really enjoyed it," Parayko said of finishing school during his rookie season. "I think a lot of people think I'm crazy, but I enjoyed it because I had an opportunity to go home from the rink and take my mind away from hockey. It was my first year [in the NHL] and some nights I would lay in bed and think it's pretty crazy I had this opportunity, so having to do homework helped keep me level-headed and gave me something to focus on outside of hockey."
Meanwhile, on the ice, Parayko continued to develop and began to establish himself at the highest level, something his current Head Coach, Mike Yeo, quickly noticed in his role at the time as Head Coach of the Minnesota Wild.
"You read the scouting report, but then you start to see the way that he can move for being such a big man, obviously that catches your attention," Yeo said. "It's quite a compliment when you're an opposing coach or player and you recognize the good things that a player on the other team is doing."
The Blues went on to finish second in the Western Conference, with Parayko producing nine goals and 24 assists in 79 games. His plus-28 rating led all rookies, by 16, and he finished fifth in the NHL and second among NHL defenseman in plus/minus rating. The Blues eventually lost to the San Jose Sharks in six games in the Western Conference Final, a bittersweet end to a season that culminated with his graduation from UAF.
"I worked so hard to get three years done there, I wanted to finish my degree," Parayko said. "It was a proud moment knowing that I got through school. I got to go from freshman all the way through and graduate on time, it was an opportunity for us to look back that we all accomplished it together, so it was fun."
A tremendous achievement, graduating with his fellow classmates on time, all while competing at the highest level professionally, an accomplishment not lost on Yeo.
"It's special when you see somebody like that," Yeo said. "A lot of players get to the NHL and that's their sole focus, with good reason. Colton had the ability to play at an incredibly high level while continuing to focus on his studies, which just shows me what kind of person he is. He's incredibly well-rounded and because of that he's very highly respected with our group."
The concept of being well-rounded is sold to us from universities around the country, and is preached within intercollegiate athletics. And, while many college athletes don't make it to the professional ranks, there has been a noticeable trend in college hockey producing NHL-caliber players.
"You've seen a higher number of quality players coming out of college, stepping right into the NHL and being competitive, and in many cases dominant," Yeo added. "The competition at the college level is very high and I also think the coaching is really strong right now. You can see the players coming out are well prepared, they've got a good sense of the game and you can tell that they've been taught well, they're well prepared to transition to the NHL level and face top talent."
Among that group is Parayko, who is quickly establishing himself as a top-level NHL defenseman and, according to Yeo, an important piece of the Blues' future.
"We believe that he is a huge part of our core," Yeo said. "His ice time is going to continue to go up, his dominance on the ice is evident every night, he's got to be one of the most difficult people in the league to play against with his skating ability and range. But, just as important as anything else, his character and leadership potential is really going to help propel us to the next level, and we're going to continue to grow as a team as he continues to grow."
Character. Once again, the word that resonates. From a small town in Canada, to another tight-knit community in Alaska, to the bright lights of the National Hockey League, the commitment remains the same, the character remains the same. It's a recipe that, for Parayko, has proven successful thus far. More importantly, though, it's a solid foundation built for a lifetime of success on and off the ice. A shining example of the value of the collegiate experience and the true commitment to the word "student-athlete."