Zach Pochiro spent just the first two years of his life in St. Louis but the city by the Mississippi feels like home to the 19-year-old Prince George Cougar.
His parents lived there for four years, working as blackjack dealers until they moved to Las Vegas. Pochiro has always felt tied to St. Louis and from his earliest days as a minor hockey player the Blues were his favourite NHL team.
His love for the organization went through the roof on draft day in June when the Blues picked him in the fourth round, 121st overall, only the second Las Vegas product to be taken in the draft (Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was the first).
Pochiro leaves on Tuesday for St. Louis, where he'll undergo fitness testing with the other Blues rookies before traveling to Traverse City. Mich., for the NHL Prospects Tournament, which starts Thursday and ends Sept. 9.
"It's my first NHL camp and on top of it it's my favourite team so it's like a dream come true," said Pochiro. "I just want to show them what they drafted, that it wasn't a mistake. I want them to want me to play for them as early as possible. I just want go there and take it all in and learn from the guys like [T.J.] Oshie and see what they do."
As 65 games as a WHL rookie last season, Pochiro finished third in Cougars scoring, collecting 15 goals and 39 points. He also picked up 105 penalty minutes. Pochiro's father Pete owns a boxing gym in Las Vegas and Zach trained over the summer with the boxers while working out his hockey moves on the rink with Zucker and Mario Puskarich, the 2012-13 BCHL scoring champion.
The six-foot-two, 160-pound Pochiro figures he'll be back in Prince George by Sept. 17, in time to board the bus with the Cougars when they open the season three days later in Portland.
Eight NHL teams are represented in the tournament, including the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, and that means Pochiro will likely face off against two of his Cougar teammates. Defenceman Marc McNulty, 18, was drafted by the Red Wings in the sixth round, 169th overall in 2013, while Klarc Wilson, a 20-year-old right winger, was invited as a free agent to the Rangers camp. McNulty and Wilson left Monday to report to their NHL teams.
The undrafted Wilson is in great shape for his NHL tryout having attended the Winnipeg Jets rookie camp in 2011. Cougars strength and conditioning coach Kris Russell rates the native of Edmonton the most fit player on the team.
"It's pretty exciting, I wasn't expecting it at all, I just found out a month ago," said Wilson. "My agent told me the Rangers have been interested for awhile, ever since my draft year, so I guess they feel my game has improved over the past few seasons."
Wilson joined the Cougars 40 games into the 2012-13 season from the Edmonton Oil Kings and he contributed five goals and five assists in 31 games for the Cats.
"It's my last year [of junior hockey] so I want to have a good camp and hopefully make it a hard decision for them," Wilson said. "I know what to expect. Guys are bigger, stronger and faster, and obviously I'm older and I've matured. Obviously the nerves are there but I'm going to try to use them to my advantage to make my game even better and not worry about making mistakes. I feel stronger than I ever have."
The six-foot-six, 193-pound McNulty attended the Red Wings player development camp in July and he says he won't be as nervous around the pros this time around. Getting drafted was a life-changing experience for the Medicine Hat native. The Red Wings like his size, his long reach and his quick feet .
"It's kind of sunk in now and I just want to go play my best and make a good impression," said McNulty, who scored more goals (eight) than he had assists (seven) in 52 games with the Cougars last season.
"I'm a big guy and something I've really focused on the last few years is getting better at my skating. There's still a lot of work ahead of me but I know I'm prepared to put in the effort. It's a little easier going to the gym knowing you've got to work for something even more."
Cougars left winger Troy Bourke, a third-round Colorado Avalanche draft pick who went 72nd overall in 2012, missed out on his opportunity to go an NHL camp last summer due to the players' lockout. The native of Onoway, Alta., has his plane ticket and he's ready for to leave for Denver on Friday. The three-day rookie camp starts Sept. 8, with the Avs' main camp beginning Sept. 12.
"Colorado was one of my favourite teams growing up as a kid you dream of this and work for it for so many years," said Bourke, the Cougars' second-leading scorer last season with 15 goals and 50 points in 63 games. "Over the next couple years here I've just got to prove myself to them and I'll go there for the experience and to work my butt off.
"It's a great organization and [GM] Joe Sakic is unbelievable. It's been cool so far and the work's still ahead of me. I have no idea how long I'll be there, I'll just take every bit of advice they give me."