For the first time since being drafted in the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Ian Cole feels as though he belongs in the National Hockey League. It has been a long journey for Cole, who has spent the better part of the past two seasons with the Blues' minor league affiliate team, the Peoria Rivermen, but coming in to training camp this year he knows he has a spot reserved for him on the NHL roster, a spot that was never open to him in the past.
“I’ve never had this opportunity", said Cole. "This is the first time I have had the opportunity to be here all season. You could say ‘if he played well he could stay’, but there was always a pretty good chance I would end up in Peoria either way. It’s nice to have the chance to be here for a full season and hopefully in the top-six (defensemen) for the entire regular season.”
Cole was called up to the Blues three separate times during the 2011-12 season, but only for depth purposes. He never really had the opportunity to prove he was worthy of an NHL spot and on one occasion only spent four days with the parent club before being sent back down to the AHL. As emotionally deflating as it was for Cole, he knew that he had to play a strong game every time he was granted an opportunity, and that all he could do was hope someone noticed him. On February 15 Cole was called up for the third and final time, and would remain with the Blues for the rest of the regular season as well as through two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He added 26 more regular-season games to his NHL resume, along with six points (one goal, five assists). He also gained some valuable playoff experience, playing in two post-season games.
It was a great experience for the 23-year old defenseman, getting to witness the grind of an NHL season, but it was also hard to sit in the press box most nights while his teammates took the ice to compete. He is hoping there will be less of that this season.
“No one likes to sit out. Obviously you want to be in the NHL with the guys and on an NHL team, but if you aren’t playing it’s hard to be up-beat and positive. You want to play hockey. Hopefully this is the year I move forward and get to play the whole season.”
Drafted one year before the Blues' young, star defenseman, Alex Pietrangelo, Cole found his journey to the NHL to be a bit longer than Pietrangelo's, but he knows he now has to prove himself, just like all young players, if he want to play in a top-six role every night.
“It has to be proven. They aren’t just going to hand out a spot like that to someone who has only played 26 games in an NHL season. It has to be shown to them and it can only be shown if I’m playing regular time in a regular season. That’s why I’m hoping they get this lockout thing figured out. It means a lot to me to play a full season. That’s what I need to take my career to the next level. Play a full season, not 26 games. Play every game for a full season and show they can depend on me.”
Cole spent the offseason training for what he hoped would be a season spent with the Blues, but unsure if there would be a spot for him. The Blues tried to acquire a left-handed partner for Pietrangelo, but came up empty. Now defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo has signed with Detroit and Cole has been guaranteed a spot with the Blues. General Manager Doug Armstrong believes Cole has earned his shot, and is content with the defensive layout of his team.
"We had talked about improving the left side of our defense if possible. There hasn't been a lot of player movement but we believe in the six guys that are here, Ian Cole being one of the six."
Cole will start the season in St. Louis, and where he goes from there depends on what he does with the opportunity. It could be Cole's one chance to prove himself, and he looks to make the most of it by doing what he loves; playing hockey.
“Hopefully I continue to move up the ladder and continue to grow as a player. The only way to do that is to play hockey.”