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He scores on ice, makes saves off ice

NHLer Steen rescues abused dogs in St. Louis

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As a fast-skating centre for the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League, Winnipeg native Alexander Steen has scored some big goals during the last five seasons.

But it might not be a bad idea for him to think about making the switch to goaltender, because he's also proven in the last five years he can make spectacular saves.

When he's not doing his thing on the ice for the Blues, Alex, 29, helps Stray Rescue of St. Louis, a no-kill animal-rescue organization, save abused and abandoned dogs in two of his adopted city's grittiest neighbourhoods.

"East and North St. Louis are troubled areas," he told me during a chat this week. "There's lots of poverty, so there are tons of abandoned homes and stray dogs and abandoned dogs."

In a soft-spoken voice so reminiscent of his father, former Jets captain and current city councillor Thomas Steen, Alex calmly shared stories of almost unimaginable animal cruelty.

"I've seen cases where they've nailed shut the doors to the house and left the dog inside," he said. "I've seen dogs they've tried to execute and the dog has taken off with bullets in the head and chest.

"Some dogs have been shot, some dogs have had their paws cut off with a knife, some dogs have flesh-eating disease or heartworms. The list goes on and on. It's unbelievable the things I've seen."

Alex was in town this week to lend a hand at several charity events, including the seventh annual Canad Inns Steen Classic golf tournament Thursday, in support of the Amadeus Steen Foundation, a non-profit group that helps children and was created in honour of Alex's younger brother who died of a heart virus as a baby.

A dog lover, Alex dove headfirst into the rescue business during his first year in St. Louis when teammate and pal, Barret Jackman, introduced him to the founder of Stray Rescue, famed U.S. dog rescuer and author Randy Grim.

Grim's no-kill shelter operates a veterinary clinic and is dedicated to finding homes for the animals it rescues, most of which are the victims of horrific abuse and neglect, found dumped on highways or abandoned in parks, empty houses and dark alleys.

Whenever he has a free moment, Alex serves as Grim's trusted winger, helping to feed packs of stray dogs -- "They're very skittish. We use food to lure them in, but even then they'll only come a certain distance" -- and always keeping eyes and ears open for reports of animals in crisis.

He stressed they never forcibly seize anyone's pet -- "You have to get police to do that" -- but will occasionally ask owners to voluntarily surrender an animal in cases of obvious abuse.

It's tough for Alex to talk about some of the anguish he's seen, and it's difficult for a visitor to hear.

"We've seen dogs abandoned for two or three weeks when the owner has been in jail," he told me. "We know they haven't eaten. The most unbelievable part is the dogs are usually happy to see us."

One nightmarish case in particular is impossible to forget.

"Somebody cut off his paws so it was just two bones sticking out and threw him out on the street and Randy and I found him," Alex recalled. "He was a little poodle mix. Randy has him at the shelter, so he's alive."

In another incident, "a dog named Opie had 12 bullets in him. Randy has him at home. He's in a doggie wheelchair. He can't use his back legs because of the bullets. It's unbelievable."

Patrolling the mean streets of St. Louis is not for the faint of heart, but Alex and his rescue-team linemate never knowingly put themselves in danger. "We don't go out at night, just during the days and Randy knows all the areas like the back of his hand. We don't deliberately put ourselves in harm's way. The rush is getting the dogs out of dangerous situations. They're helpless. They can't tell anyone about it and who knows how many days they have left."

His voice grew quieter as he recalled a frigid day about three years ago when the pair was looking for strays and saw a dog collapse in a nearby snowbank.

"I got out of the Jeep, walked across the street and a guy came along and said it was his dog. Randy talked to him and he agreed to let us take the dog.

"I put him in a blanket and lay him in the back of the Jeep. We could smell the infection. He'd been sliced with a knife from the back of his neck across the front. Somebody had tried to kill him and didn't do a very good job.

"He also had two bullets in his chest, two in his back legs and heartworm and flesh-eating disease. It took three to four months to get him cleaned up. Now he lives with Randy." The dog's name is Stracks, and a special fund has been created in his name to raise cash for emergency veterinary bills.

Humble and polite, Alex dismisses suggestions he's doing anything special -- "I'm an animal lover. It's a fun way to help out and get engaged in the community" -- but the fact of the matter is this: He is a hero, the kind of guy kids can look up to.

And he's a pretty good hockey player, too.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2013 A4

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