By Dave Eminian
Of The Journal Star
PEORIA, Ill. – No buts about it, Patrick Wellar returns to the Peoria Rivermen blueline tonight a better player than he was seven days ago.
The rookie prospect of the St. Louis Blues had a week most players would envy, notching his first pro goal, first game-winner and winning a berth in the ECHL All-Star Game all in a matter of hours.
But he sees the turning point in his development much further back.
“I played the best hockey of the year against Atlantic City last week,” said the 6-3 and 210-pound Wellar, whom the Blues consider a major prospect. “I’ve noticed a change in my conditioning is helping, and my confidence level is rising.
“But it started when (Rivermen coach) Jason Christie started pushing me to play better, prepare better. I needed the kick in the rear.”
Wellar, a stay-home defenseman in the first year of a three-year NHL contract with St. Louis, struggled out of the gate, posting a -11 rating in his first 16 games with Peoria.
But in the 15 games since then, he’s rated at even, an impressive turnaround.
“I expect to keep getting better,” Wellar said. “I was so hard on myself, mentally, those first few weeks. I’ve talked a lot to experienced players, guys who’ve played at the next level, like (Rivermen defenseman) Ed Hill, and they told me to just relax.
“It was the part that was missing from my game.”
Wellar grew up as the son of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police staff sergeant, his father, Gord, moving the family six times. They call Colonsay, Saskatchewan home now. It’s a little blip on the radar screen 500 people strong, about 30 miles southeast of Saskatoon.
“We have one restaurant, one grocery story, a pot ash mine and a hockey rink,” Wellar said. “It was a good atmosphere to live in. There wasn’t a lot to do. For me, the choice was easy – play hockey.”
Well, by then it was easy. When Gord Wellar first wanted his son to give hockey a try at age 5, the player resisted. Mounties usually get their man, though, and that meant Patrick Wellar was going to play.
“And I loved it from the first moment,” Wellar said. “I wouldn’t stop playing the game for anything in the world.”
Wellar played four seasons in the rugged Western Hockey League for Portland, played a fifth year for Calgary, and in 2002 was a third-round pick by Washington in the NHL Entry Draft.
He declined the Caps contract offer and went back to junior hockey, then found himself a free agent last summer as the NHL lockout crashed down.
“It turned out to be a blessing, not going back into the draft,” Wellar said. “St. Louis made an offer you can’t refuse, and I was on my way.”