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Larry Wigge | columnist
Jan 13, 2007, 10:00 AM EST

When opportunity knocks, the truly young, character players around the NHL don't just skate through the door ... they slam it behind them so that everyone knows they want that opportunity for themselves.

It was more than a month ago, just after Andy Murray took over as coach of the St. Louis Blues. In looking for advice about what buttons he could push to improve the team's power-play production, Murray didn't hesitate to ask former All-Star defenseman Al MacInnis, whose hard shot and ability to quarterback a power play was exceptional, for his thoughts.

"Al said, ‘We've got a young player who I think should be playing on the first power-play unit. He's got really good hands, a great shot and a knack of finding a way to get the puck in the net,' " Murray said excitedly. He then shook his head and said, "I can't remember his name ... but I can give you his number ... it's No. 12."

The name: Lee Stempniak.

Andy Murray could be excused for not knowing about the West Seneca, N.Y., native, who had 14 goals and 13 assists in 57 games last season for the Blues after finishing a four-year stint playing in the Ivy League at Dartmouth. But it didn't take Murray long to see the same bright future in Stempniak that MacInnis did.

On Jan. 9, Stempniak set up Bill Guerin for a power-play goal late in the first period and then added another assist in the third period, before he scored the game-winner for the Blues in the shootout of a 4-3 victory at Columbus to extend his point streak to a personal-high seven games in which he's had power-play points in all but one of those contests.

Stempniak has already had 13 goals halfway through this season -- and he's won two shootouts with nifty backhanded goals.

"I'm telling you, Lee is going to be a pure goal-scorer in this league," said Keith Tkachuk, a two-time 50-goal scorer. "He's got an eye for the net and a very heavy shot. And he never stops working on his shot.

"He's really learning to wire his one-timer."

This is no rink rat. Stempniak was valedictorian of his senior class at St. Francis High School in Buffalo and majored in economics at Dartmouth, graduating with an impressive 3.6 grade-point average. He interned after his junior year with Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.

By his own admission, Lee was a late-bloomer.

"My parents wanted me to go to college, but the only school that showed an interest in me as a hockey player was Dartmouth," Stempniak said. "It was a program that had been down for a number of years and Bob Gaudet, the coach, sold me on the idea that I would get a great education and have the opportunity to be a big part of the team's resurgence."

Gaudet was right on both counts. Stempniak was a two-time all-America pick and team captain at Dartmouth. And now Lee is helping another program get back on its feet in St. Louis.

Smart, inquisitive, willing to learn ... and very talented.

This is a hard-working, stay-in-the-rink-until-I-get-it-right youngster. That's how he developed his power move and balance on blades, while getting ready for professional hockey before the 2005-06 season.

"I knew the guy who ran the rink in West Seneca and he'd let me in whenever I wanted," Stempniak smiled. "That's where I worked on my skating and balance and that's where I developed a feel for the puck, handling it myself in different drills I made up."

This summer it was back to the rink for plyometrics, to make Stempniak leaner, stronger and quicker to help him get through the bigger bodies he has to face in the NHL.

Stempniak, who was selected in the fifth round, with the 148th pick overall, in the 2003 Entry Draft, didn't get his work ethic from books. He learned it from watching his parents, Larry, who works at Quebecor World Printing, a book bindery company in Depew, just outside of Buffalo, and Carla, who works for the Buffalo postal department, the third shift that goes from 9:30 p.m. until 5:30 a.m.

"They drove to something like 33 of my 35 or 36 games at Dartmouth," Lee remembered. "When I was called up to St. Louis they went out and bought a satellite dish so they could watch Blues games. They really care about what my brother Jay (who is a defenseman at Division III Johnson and Wales College in Rochester, N.Y.) and do with our lives.

"It isn't always easy for mom," Stempniak continued. "Our home games start at 8 in Buffalo and she watches until 9 before she has to go to work. Sometimes dad will call her during the games if something big happens. Sometimes she will call home if it is an important game. Otherwise, he TiVos the games and she catches up on me when she gets home."

Earlier this season, when Buffalo was hit with two feet of snow, neither Larry nor Carla got to see Lee's first shootout game-winner this season in the Blues' home opener against Boston Oct. 12.

"The cable went out just before the overtime," Lee said. "Luckily mom had borrowed the headsets and was able to listen to the game on XM Satellite Radio. But when she got home and wanted to see the goal. There was no TV."

Larry and Carla Stempniak never pushed Lee or Jay into hockey. But it didn't take long for Lee to switch from baseball to hockey.

"I remember playing baseball as a kid, but my dad asked me one day if I wanted to play hockey," Stempniak said. "A week later, I was out there with a Sabres jersey on, and I never looked back."

That was at a time when Pat LaFontaine, Dave Andreychuk, Alexander Mogilny were the Sabres' big scorers and Dominik Hasek flashed his magical goaltending skills on a nightly basis.

I'll never forget Stempniak's first real chance on the big stage came last February, after the Blues had traded veterans Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger to Carolina and Nashville, respectively, and the last-place team needed someone ... anyone ... to provide a little offense. That night against Calgary, Lee showed no nervousness zeroing in on Flames all-world goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and lifting a shot that eluded Kiprusoff's quick glove hand to win a shootout.

"Who was that kid?" Kiprusoff asked afterward. "I thought I had him. But he waited and waited like a veteran -- and then he showed some nice hands when he pulled the puck back and lifted it over my glove."

Now, the kid with the nice hands and patience has been given more responsibility under Murray.

"One of the objectives on the power play is working the puck for good, open shots and Lee has quickly shown us he shoots the puck as hard as anybody," Murray said. Then, he added, "Now, we just have to get him to shoot more."

Clearly, Andy Murray is very familiar with Stempniak's name now. And with the subtle strategic changes that Murray and power-play coach Ray Bennett (he came with Andy from Los Angeles) have made, the Blues are now winning games because of the power play.

It's funny, but there are so many stories about players now making a name for themselves in the NHL who did not take the yellow-brick-road route to the big time.

Add Lee Stempniak -- No. 12 -- to that list.

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