By Kevin Connelly
There were hugs and tears all around the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday as three young hockey players with Youngstown Phantoms ties lived out a childhood dream of hearing their name called in the National Hockey League Draft.
In Philadelphia, Russian-born forward Maxim Letunov became the second-highest draft pick in the Phantoms’ five-year history when the St. Louis Blues selected him in the second round with the 52nd overall pick.
Two rounds later, Youngstown’s second-leading scorer last season, JJ Piccinich, was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the 103 overall pick.
Sandwiched between them was former Phantom Nathan Walker, who was taken in the third round (89th overall) by the Washington Capitals. Last summer, the Australian was in the Phantoms’ training camp before attending a Capitals camp. He eventually signed with the Capitals’ AHL team, the Hershey Bears.
They were among the 32 USHL players drafted this weekend, a league record. It was the first time three Phantoms were taken in one draft.
With the announcement of their names projected loudly inside the Wells Fargo Center, Letunov and Piccinich said they were left speechless as they donned a professional jersey for the first time.
“There’s no words to describe,” said Letunov, whose mother and sister also were in attendance. “You work all your life to get to that point and to finally hear your name called, it was pretty amazing.”
Piccinich had a slightly larger cheering section inside the arena since his hometown of Paramus, N.J., is just two hours north of Philadelphia. Surrounded by 18 of his closest friends and family, Piccinich was serenaded by chants and cheers when his name was announced.
“I can’t even explain it to you,” Piccinich said of his emotions. “It’s such a rewarding feeling. All the hard work — and I’ve been playing hockey for 14 years now — and to just be recognized for what you’ve done is awesome.”
Walker was a member of the 2012-13 Phantoms team that lost in the USHL’s Eastern Conference Finals, but the forward missed the playoffs because of a back injury. He appeared in 27 games that season, scoring seven goals and registering 20 assists.
He is the first Aussie-born player to be selected in the NHL Draft.
Despite being the second-highest pick in franchise history — behind only defenseman Scott Mayfield, who was taken 34th overall by the New York Islanders in 2011 — Letunov still has a long journey to get to St. Louis.
After celebrating with his family, Letunov will return to Youngstown for his senior year at Ursuline High School. He’ll play in his second season with the Phantoms, before heading north to Boston University.He also plans to make time to learn about his potential future city in the midwest.
“I’ve been there a couple time and I really like the city,” he said of St. Louis. “Obviously I’ll learn more about it now.”
When Letunov arrives in Boston, Piccinich already will be there. He leaves for college this summer after two productive seasons in the USHL. In 123 games in Youngstown, the 6-foot, 185-pound winger tallied 30 goals and 43 assists — registering the majority of his points last season.
“The thing about all my coaches and teammates in Youngstown is this is a testament to them,” Piccinich said.
“This shows how far I’ve really come and it’s all thanks to them.”
While the American-born Piccinich was chosen by one of Canada’s most storied franchises, he couldn’t wait to put on his jersey with the legendary maple leaf on the chest.
“It’s pretty rich in tradition,” he said of his new team. “They’re in a Stanley Cup drought right now, but that’s not a knock on them.
“They’re a first class organization and when you see them develop talent like James Van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel, that’s a great sign. It’s very warming for me to see that they care about the development.”
The Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967. The Blues, created in 1967, have never won a championship.
Letunov and Piccinich said they were almost as excited to hear their teammates name announced as they were their own.
“To hear your name called is a dream come true,” Piccinich said. “It’s almost like I have to pinch myself.”