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Peoria rookies pursuing their dreams

December 3, 2009
Photo: Dennis Sievers

by Ryan Richards || AHL On The Beat Archive

More than two and a half years ago, three teenagers, from three different countries, shared a dream: to play professional ice hockey in North America.

Today, Lars Eller, Aaron Palushaj and Brett Sonne are 20 years old and living the dream while becoming a force on the Peoria Rivermen front line.

Selected by the St. Louis Blues in the first, second and third rounds, respectively, of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, each player has taken a different path to bring them to the same place. They now have to face the pressure, expectations and adjustments to go from being “the star” to being the rookie.

“It’s like going from playing with boys, to playing with men,” said Sonne, on the transition from the Western Hockey League to the American Hockey League.

Sonne, a native of British Columbia, played in the WHL for four-plus seasons with the Calgary Hitmen before coming to the Rivermen. In 62 games last season, Sonne amassed 100 points (48g, 52a) and won the 2009 Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as the WHL player of the year.

The start of this season, however, has shown Sonne the other side of lady luck. In 20 games for Peoria, Sonne has totaled just five points.

“It’s part of the learning experience,” said Sonne. “For the most part, all season, I’ve had chances to finish and some bounces haven’t gone my way. But that’s hockey. You just have to keep grinding it out.”

One of the reasons for Sonne’s early struggles has been adjusting to the physical play of the AHL. In his last season in the WHL, Sonne faced opponents as young as 16. Now, he’s the baby of the bunch.

“They’re a lot older and you have to learn to play to their speed and strengths if you want to succeed,” said Sonne.

Palushaj agrees, but coming from college he has a slightly different perspective.

“The speed is quicker, but the systems and positioning are the biggest adjustments,” said Palushaj.

The second-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan compiled 94 points (23g, 71a) over two seasons as a Wolverine. In 22 games this season, the rookie right winger has notched one goal and seven assists.

While he’s looked swift on offense and shown glimpses of grittiness on defense, the struggle for the Michigan native seems to come down to X’s and O’s.

“Everyone’s real good in this league and when you’re out of position, you’re giving chances to them and when you’re in [position], you give chances to your team,” said Palushaj.

Whether it is positioning and plays or speed and strength, all facets of the game take a backseat to culture for Eller. More than 4,000 miles from home in Denmark, Eller not only had to adjust to life on his own, but in a new country too.

“On the ice I don’t feel I’ve had to make many transitions,” said Eller, the highest Dane ever drafted when selected 13th overall in 2007. “Outside the rink, there’s different stuff with the land and culture you have to adapt to.”

While culturally it’s been a shock, the game seems to come naturally to the young man who already has two professional seasons in Sweden under his belt. Eller has registered 15 points (3g, 12a) in 18 games for the Rivermen, tying him for third most on the team and ninth among all AHL rookies.

He even got a shot with the Blues. In five games with the big club, Eller notched a goal in the third period of his NHL debut help earn the Blues a point in an overtime loss to Calgary.

“Getting to my first game was unbelievable,” said Eller. “And then actually scoring a goal seemed almost too good to be true. It took me a few days to realize how big it was.”

Even though the players themselves deserve a lot of credit, much is absorbed behind the scenes that helps groom the threesome for future success. The trio has bonded together and even spent part of the summer living together as they trained with some of the more experienced players in St. Louis.

“You gotta look at the other players and soak up how other people play and the off-ice commitment that goes into being a professional,” said Sonne.

“The older guys keep telling you to stick with it,” said Eller. “They tell you ‘appreciate what you do and enjoy it.’”

On the Rivermen, one needn’t look past veteran and captain Yan Stastny.

“Every day Yan does the right thing,” said Palushaj. “Yan comes to practice and works hard. Anything you need to talk to him about, he’s there for you.”

No matter what advice they receive, all three know they need to stay healthy for successful futures. They’re thrilled to being playing professionally, but thankful as well.

“I’ll play as long as my body allows me,” said Eller. “Hopefully, I have 15 years left in me.”

With the immense talent and elevated expectations of these rookies, looking ahead is inevitable. And while they have all taken their own roads on the way to St. Louis, their journey has united them in Peoria where they can take the next step together.