Of all the sports Chris Wideman played growing up in St. Louis, a career in the NHL perhaps seemed the most unlikely.
The Widemans had no background in hockey. Chris’ father, Gary, played point guard at Southwest High and later at Central Methodist University. He could dish the rock but never tried a saucer pass.
Gary and wife Julie, however, were one-time Blues season-ticket holders and took Chris and his younger brother Alex to games. Like being yanked by a stick, they were hooked.
“Watching Brett Hull play and that year they won the Presidents’ Trophy (1999-2000), those are two things that really stick out in my mind,” Chris said. “That whole group of guys around the Presidents’ Trophy team, that’s what I grew up with. They had good teams back then and they were fun to watch.”
That spawned a young fan, but it wasn’t enough for a wide-eyed Wideman, who attended Chaminade Prep. He turned power-skating lessons into a college career at the Miami University (Ohio) and turned the heads of the Ottawa Senators’ scouts into a fourth-round draft selection in 2009.
An undersized defenseman who stands 5 feet 10 and weighs 185 pounds, Wideman had only half the odds beaten at that point. But after winning the “Eddie Shore Award” as the American Hockey League’s best blueliner with the Binghamtom Senators in 2014-15, he was called up by Ottawa in October and has become a regular.
On Monday, Wideman will skip the turnstiles at Scottrade Center and instead slip in through the player entrance for his first game in his hometown. A group of about 40 family members and friends will be on hand to watch the 25-year-old face the Blues in a game that begins at 7 p.m.
“They’ve been so supportive and sacrificed so much for me to get me to this point,” Wideman said. “It’s really a tribute to them and everything that they’ve done for me. Hopefully it’ll be a fun night for everyone and they can enjoy it.”
After attending Blues games in the 1990s, Chris and Alex Wideman, who is two years younger, wanted to lace up their own skates. The family, which lives in Richmond Heights, drove to Brentwood Ice Rink, where Gary spotted a man giving lessons. He introduced Chris, then 5, and Alex, 3, to John Standbrook and asked if he could help.
“I just tried to make it fun for them,” said Standbrook, the son of former Maine and Wisconsin assistant coach Grant Standbrook, who won five NCAA national titles. “If you can’t skate, you just can’t compete. So we just built it from the base up — the fundamentals of the stride, agility, cross-overs, backwards. It was skating, skating, skating. Once they got that, as I always told Gary, everything else is going to be so much easier.”
Chris stuck with it, joining the AAA Blues at age 11 and playing three seasons at Chaminade. At age 16, with the AAA Blues, he was promoted to play with the 18-year-olds.
“That’s probably when you could look at him and say, ‘This kid has got something special going on,’” said Scott Sanderson, his AAA coach with the 18s. “You could never really look at a 16-year-old and say he’s going to play in the NHL. But you could tell he’s dominating the level that he’s at and he’s doing it in a very quick fashion.”
Wideman’s career was now really taking off. As a junior, he accepted a scholarship to Miami and, in 2007, became the third player selected in the United States Hockey League draft by Cedar Rapids.
“I probably didn’t think about anything past high school until I got drafted into the USHL,” Wideman said. “That was kind of an eye-opening experience, like maybe I could play in college and maybe after.”
As a freshman at Miami in 2008-09, Wideman had 26 assists in 39 games. The Redhawks advanced to the NCAA national title game against Kevin Shattenkirk and Boston University, which erased a two-goal deficit late in regulation and rallied for a 4-3 overtime win.
That summer, Ottawa made Wideman the 100th pick in the NHL draft, which he was not even watching. Current Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who had recruited Wideman in college, was the one who notified him.
“Chris called me up and said, ‘Hey, I got drafted,”’ Gary Wideman remembers. “It was exciting. I was happy for him. He worked so hard. He could never coast. He always had to be working harder than people that aren’t his size. That may have been a godsend.”
Wideman played four seasons at Miami, adding another NCAA Frozen Four appearance in 2010. He followed that up with three seasons in Binghamton, posting 19 goals and 61 points in 75 games last season en route to the Eddie Shore Award.
Neither Wideman's size, nor the fact that his family had hockey ties, has held him back.
“I learned a lot of stuff from my dad, work ethic and how you approach things on a daily basis,” Chris said. “You want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know that you gave your most honest effort. That’s the biggest thing that has stuck with me my whole career — just be the best you can possibly be.”
And now Wideman's unexpected career is bringing him back to Scottrade Center, where in 2007 he was part of Chaminade's 11-1 loss to CBC in the Mid-States Hockey Association championship game.
"It's unbelievable, I remember telling him at the time 'It would be so cool if you played for the Blues or played against the Blues here one day,'" said Alex Wideman, who plays for the Evansville (Ind.) IceMen, Ottawa's ECHL affiliate. "It's just crazy how it's finally here. I can't wait to watch it."