The St. Louis Blues released seven players back to their respective Junior teams this past week: Luke Opilka, Sam Blais, Liam Dunda, Glenn Gawdin, Adam Musil, Vince Dunn, and C.J. Yakimowicz. Five of them were taken by the Blues in the 2015 NHL Draft including Opilka, the 18 year-old, St. Louis-born goaltender who now finds himself signed to a 3-year entry-level deal with his hometown team.
Fans have heard about his standout performance in this year’s Traverse City Prospects Tournament earlier this month and I am looking forward to seeing him develop and eventually rise through the St. Louis system. The netminder was kind enough to take time to answer some questions about himself.
THW: When did you first realize what your hockey future might hold?
“I was about 9 when I knew I wanted to be a goalie.”
Opilka grew up in the Sunset Hills area of St. Louis County and played his high school hockey at Lindbergh. As for the road that would lead him to the Blues:
THW: Was hockey something your entire family was into?
“I started out playing (youth hockey) for Affton and then moved to AAA when I was a Bantam. My family grew up with hockey. My uncle played it and that’s sort of how I got started with it.” Luke says he’s always been a Blues fan and that he has “two brothers that both played St. Louis minor hockey. One that still does play for AAA.”
THW: Who was your favorite hockey player/goalie as a kid?
“My favorite growing up was Marc Andre-Fleury.”
Opilka was selected by the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL in the 2013 Priority Draft. He had signed a Letter of Intent to attend and play hockey for the University of Wisconsin Badgers before being selected by the Blues in the fifth round of this year’s NHL Draft.
THW: Do you have any misgivings about foregoing college?
“No I don’t have any regrets about leaving Wisconsin, I think both places are great but that Kitchener is the better place for me.”
I’d agree given that he recently won a gold medal with the United States at the IIHF World Under-18 Championships.
THW: Have you and your family had been preparing for the possibility of going pro”
“Getting drafted was always something I had hoped for but not necessarily planned on. I just liked playing hockey and that’s what I enjoy.”
He’ll get to play now on a bigger stage in Kitchener than possible in the NCAA and he’s got some familiar faces with him there as well. Kitchener forwards Ryan MacInnis and Jake Henderson are both from St. Louis and very familiar to Opilka, Henderson especially so as he played with Luke at Lindbergh and in AAA.
Finally, I wanted to know about the time he’s spent this month with the Blues and it’s obvious Opilka’s already made some incredible memories as he begins his career in earnest. As the starting Blues goaltender in two of the Prospects Tournament games he earned two wins and allowed only a single goal on 45 shots against, including a 2-0, 19-save victory over the New York Rangers rookie squad.
THW: What was the best part of the Prospects Tournament?
“My best memory of Traverse [City] is getting the shutout against New York, definitely will never forget that.”
THW: And what’s your biggest takeaway from your first NHL training camp?
“From the Blues camp I will remember most is just the pace of the games and practices: was an overall unbelievable experience being able to skate with players such as Tarasenko.”
This year was Opilka’s first at Blues training camp and I’m looking forward to him wearing the Bluenote in years to come. Perhaps we’ll see him with the Wolves in a year or two, pushing St. Louis to give him his shot in the NHL.
Luke was very gracious to talk with me through social media for this post and you can (should!) follow him on Twitter @Lopi917.