Coyotes leader scores an All-Star hat trick

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

When Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller fractured his leg in a freak accident on the ice March 30, 2022, he didn’t think he was going to return to the ice anytime soon.

For the last 15 games of the season, the 24-year-old Keller was stuck on his couch, forced to watch his fellow Arizona Coyotes play hockey on television.

“Coming into this (2022-23) season, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Keller says via telephone from his North Valley home.

“I had a super scary injury at the end of last season. I didn’t know how long I was going to be out, or how long to heal and feel like myself again.”

Keller rehabbed all summer and beat the odds, returning for the first game of the 2022-23 season. He now leads the team in scoring and is a few points away from the 300 career mark. That would make him the ninth Coyotes player to reach the milestone.

This month, he heads to Sunrise, Florida, for this third appearance in the NHL All-Star Game on Saturday, February 4. The choice ties him with Keith Tkachuk and Teppo Numminen for the most All-Star appearances for a Coyotes player.

“It’s definitely something that every player wants to achieve,” Keller says about the All-Star Game.

“Not knowing how I was going to feel coming into the season and being selected with other amazing players, I feel super lucky and thankful. I couldn’t have done it without so many people’s sacrifices, teammates and coaches.”

Keller grew up in the St. Louis area and recalls watching the All-Star Games and the skills competition as a kid.

“I would try things I saw in the skills competition in practice when I was young,” he says. “I think it’s definitely a nice accolade to be chosen for the All-Star Game, but it’s not that important to make it. There are multiple other guys who could have gone.”

One of his choices is Czech-born Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka.

“I think Karel Vejmelka has been unbelievable all year,” he says. “He keeps us in games. We could see it last year. He’s an unbelievable goalie and a great guy. He’s awesome.”

Keller is modest about his accomplishments, as he was unaware he was approaching 300 points. He’s led the team in scoring four out of his six NHL seasons — even last year when he only played 67 games.

Recently, he scored his first NHL hat trick with the game-winning goal in overtime against the Philadelphia Flyers on December 11.

Keller was bound to succeed. He looked up to Sidney Crosby, Tkachuk and Patrick Kane. Although he played other sports growing up, too, hockey was his favorite. His mentors included Tkachuk, who coached Keller as a youth growing up in the St. Louis area, and former NHL player Jeff Brown.

“He and Jeff Brown were two unbelievable coaches,” he says. “They really taught us how to play the game. I think a lot of us gained a lot of hockey knowledge at a young age and didn’t realize it. I’m super thankful for everything they did for us.”

That inspiration didn’t stop with youth hockey.

“I’ve had great coaches and players around me,” he says. “I’ve been developing and growing into a better player. Every single year you learn so much in this league and how hard it is. I’m super thankful.”

Living in the North Valley has been fun for Keller. He enjoys golfing with his teammates, and Scottsdale’s Ocean 44, The Montauk and Diego Pops. When he returns home, he’s an avid fisherman.

But he’s laser-focused on his career.

“I’m pretty active,” he says. “I like to spend a lot of time in the gym. I like to skate a lot in the summer. Skating is one of the best parts of the summer for me. I work on new things.

“Last summer was pretty challenging, just because I had to go at a slower pace. I couldn’t do a whole lot other than my rehab. I was just sitting around and just letting my leg heal. Sitting on the couch watching was definitely tough to do but then it was the off season. At least I didn’t miss too many games and didn’t have to suffer anymore. I missed the game so much. I had never really been injured before. It was a little eye opening, but I’m super thankful to be back playing.”

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