Paul Stastny showing skills only genes can provide

Updated: March 13, 2007, 12:48 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Early in his coaching tenure in St. Louis, Joel Quenneville was skating in an informal session with the Blues alumni, who sometimes brought their sons along with them. Much to Quenneville's consternation, there was this pesky pain-in-the-posterior kid on the ice who refused to respect his elders.

"I wondered, 'Who is the little guy who keeps taking the puck away from me?'" Quenneville recalls. "I couldn't get it back."

Paul Stastny
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesPaul Stastny has been a smart and reliable player on the ice for the Avalanche.

Somebody was nice enough to inform him: Oh, that's Stastny's son, Paul.

Hall of Fame winger Peter Stastny, the trailblazing defector from Czechoslovakia, finished up his NHL career with the Blues from 1993-95, settled in St. Louis and, after his retirement, worked as a team scout. Paul, Peter's youngest son, was born in Quebec City and spent his early years in New Jersey, when his father played for the Nordiques and Devils, respectively. Essentially, Paul was an All-American boy raised in the shadow of the Gateway Arch.

And why didn't he defer to the Blues' coach in the alumni sessions?

"I had to work hard or my dad would get mad at me," Paul said with a smile Sunday in St. Paul, Minn.

With Quenneville now watching from the Colorado bench, Paul Stastny is still young, relatively speaking, at age 21, and still a pain in the posterior for opposing skaters. On Sunday, he extended his scoring streak to 18 games with an assist on Milan Hejduk's first-period goal against the Minnesota Wild. That's an NHL record for rookies, breaking him out of a tie with Teemu Selanne, who closed out his remarkable 76-goal rookie season in 1982-83 with a 17-game streak.

The run has gotten Stastny to within shouting distance of Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the rookie scoring race. He and the Kings' Anze Kopitar at least are making the Calder Trophy voting something less than a 100 percent lock for the still-heavily favored and highly deserving Malkin.

Despite Stastny's genes, this is a bit of a surprise on several levels. Instead of entering college as an older-than-usual freshman, which often is the case for those who pass through the United States Hockey League on the way to campus, Stastny was 18 when he entered the University of Denver after playing only one season with the River City Lancers.

Rookie Points Streak
Paul Stastny
Stastny
Avalanche center Paul Stastny scored a third-period goal against the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night to extend his NHL rookie points streak record to 19 games.
GamesPlayerTeamDates
19Paul StastnyAvalancheFeb. 3, 2007-present
17Teemu SelanneJetsMarch 9-April 15, 1993
16Peter StastnyNordiquesOct. 25-Nov. 30, 1980
15Jude DrouinNorth StarsJan. 21-Feb. 18, 1971

The Avalanche selected Stastny with the second of their four second-round draft choices in 2005, after his freshman season. While he had been impressive in his first two seasons at DU, playing on the second of the Pioneers' back-to-back NCAA title teams in 2005, his game isn't flashy and eye-popping as much as it is heady, intuitive and efficient. And his decision to sign after his sophomore season was unexpected, since the consensus around Denver was Stastny would be better off to stick around one more season in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Even after he signed, the conventional wisdom was he would at least start this season in the AHL.

"You never know. At his age, we didn't know if he would make the lineup this year," Peter said. "I was pretty happy, and it is a sense of vindication that he made it. I'm happy for him because this is a dream come true for a kid."

Quenneville said he hasn't "seen many players come into the league with the mind-set all over the ice like he has. That's something from his pedigree and his genes that give him that sense, because certainly, we can't teach that."

Paul rarely makes you go "wow" -- he just keeps making smart play after smart play, whether it's in the defensive zone or breaking down the slot. His numbers -- 22 goals and 44 assists in 69 games -- certainly aren't pedestrian, but his game goes beyond that.

"In college, there are only maybe two, three or four guys who are as smart as you and know the game really well," Paul said. "Up here, you look up and down the roster, and you can play with any of these guys and the chemistry is there. They can read you, you can read them and they're all smart hockey players.

"You keep it simple when you're with smart players …"

There are plenty of intriguing twists involved in all of this, of course, including the fact he is with the franchise his father and uncles played for.

Peter played for Czechoslovakia in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, and as a prideful Slovak who yearned for freedom, he never was wild about representing that hybrid nation dominated by Czechs and controlled by Soviet influence. During a tournament in Austria later that year, he and his brother, Anton, escaped from the national team in wild, tire-screeching flights in cars, and ultimately were with the Nordiques for the 1980-81 season. Their other brother, Marian, joined them a year later.

Peter was gritty, so gritty he could have come from Moose Jaw; but he also had awe-inspiring talent that made him the second-highest scorer in the 1980s behind only Wayne Gretzky.

"He was a great player, and more important than that, he was a well-respected man," Paul said. "You always want to be a skill player, but at the same time, get gritty. And if you have to get cheap sometimes, you get cheap. As long as you're being competitive and doing everything you can to win, well, that's obviously a good gene to have."

Near the 1990 trading deadline, when the Nordiques were awful and winding down a 12-win season, Quebec mercifully shipped Peter to New Jersey. As he was leaving the Nordiques, Peter made a point of tracking down Quebec's young star to tell him he enjoyed being his teammate and knew he was going to be one of the game's greats for a long, long time.

Seventeen years later, that once-young star, Joe Sakic, is Paul Stastny's captain.

Paul is wearing his father's number, 26, in part because the Avalanche use the numbers retired in Quebec, and also because defenseman John-Michael Liles agreed to switch from 26 to 4. (No Rolexes were involved in the exchange, as far as anyone knows.)

Peter Stastny
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesHall of Famer Peter Stastny was one of the league's best players in the '80s. Ironically, he played for the Nordiques.

Paul's older brother, Yan, also played two years of college hockey at Notre Dame before turning pro. He played professionally in Europe, and has had cups of coffee with Boston and Edmonton. He went from the Bruins to the Blues in January, but he is now with the AHL's Peoria Rivermen. Paul more easily made the jump, but that doesn't diminish his longtime admiration for his brother, who set work ethic standards Paul emulated.

Peter and Darina Stastny are based in St. Louis, yet they also have a home in Bratislava, the Stastny's hometown and the capital of the reborn Slovakia. Peter also represents Slovakia in the European Parliament and has overseen the Slovakian national teams at the World Cup and Olympics.

Peter and his brothers developed their talents by scavenging boards and building makeshift street rinks, playing with their friends well into frigid nights. The son has had it a little easier.

"I knew Paul when he was a young little boy, and he has turned around to be a great player," said Wild forward Pavol Demitra, who also played in St. Louis, but was only 5 when the Stastny brothers defected and became non-people to the Czechoslovakian regime. "His father was a hero for a lot of people. Obviously, because we were a communist country, we didn't have a chance to watch him play in the NHL for a long time. Once we became our own country, we had more of a chance to follow him. … What he did with his brothers was amazing. He has done so much for Slovakian players and for our country."

Paul isn't making a name for himself. As a second-generation star -- one who could jump to the NHL with a scratch of a pen instead of a dangerous defection -- he's adding to its stature.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."