Lee Stempniak was a late discovery.
The Ivy League student was already 20 when his name was called in the fifth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. He wasn’t there, of course. And he didn’t skip out on school early, either, graduating from Dartmouth with an economics degree.
Impressing as a 22-year-old hopeful in his first St. Louis Blues camp, the timing of the winger’s arrival was pretty much perfect for a team in transition.
He stuck around late in camp, adapting as the game got quicker.
“It worked out really well. It happened to be a year they lost a lot of players like (Pavol) Demitra and (Chris) Pronger and there were some spots for younger guys,” said Stempniak, who is now part of a rebuilding Calgary Flames team.
“I was able to grab one and play 55 or 60 games.”
But the words he heard at the end of his tryout weren’t the ones a rookie wants to hear as the season is set to kick off.
“There were a few of us (freshman). It was me, Jay McClement and Dennis Wideman. They told those two guys to get a place and
I got sent down,” Stempniak recalled with a laugh.
“I actually got a place in Peoria when I got sent down. I was in a hotel for a long time in St. Louis and had a place in Peoria. It was the opposite for me.”
He might have pulled the trigger on the place in Peoria, Ill. — where the American League affiliate was located — a little too early.
Although he got sent down after training camp, injuries (including Keith Tkachuk’s broken ribs) led to a quick re-call. And Stempniak was already in the Detroit area while playing for the AHL’s Rivermen.
“Instead of driving down
I stayed in and played the next day, and played four or five games,” he said. “Our first game was against Detroit.
I started against Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom.”
His first thoughts after enjoying a promising pre-season?
“Yeah, this is really fast,” he said. “I was probably a little bit overwhelmed, I think, early on, the first couple of games.”
The two-game visit ended, but he thrived with the Rivermen and earned another promotion a few weeks later, sticking around for a couple of months this time.
The points came this time. He scored in his second game back — his first NHL goal — and racked up three tallies and seven points in a span of 10 games.
Plenty of optimism helped Stempniak deal with the ups and downs.
“I played pretty well and just sort of came out of nowhere in that training camp. I think
I caught the coaches’ eyes,” he said.
“It’s gratifying to know the hard work’s paying off.”
Seven years and four teams later, the West Seneca, N.Y., product still looks back at his start in St. Louis fondly.
He reminisced with former teammate Keith Tkachuk over turkey Thursday night, celebrating American Thanksgiving with his former landlord.
“He texted me the other day. We missed (each other) last time we were in town. I’ve got a really good relation with their family,” said Stempniak, who lived with Tkachuk while searching for a house during his third year in the league.
“It’s a friendship for life. It was someone that really went out of their way to make you feel welcome in the NHL when you were a young guy.”