Getting to know: Darcy Zajac
Like most hockey players, Genting Casino Coventry Blaze forward Darcy Zajac has much to thank his Mum and Dad for.
Trish and Tom Zajac (pictured below), parents of four hockey playing boys lived a hectic life with each of their sons playing on a different junior team.
“People keep asking us, ‘How could you do that with four of them?’ I say, ‘I don’t know', admitted Trish. “But we're very proud of them.”
Darcy, born 23rd September 1986 is the second-oldest son. His older Brother, Travis is the current Assistant Captain of the NHL's New Jersey Devils, whilst the next one down has recently retired from the game at 28 with over 120 AHL games to his name. The youngest, Nolan has just signed his first pro-contract in the ECHL with Toledo Walleye after graduating, from the University of Denver.
“When the boys lived at home, I was never out of the kitchen,” said Trish. “I was making meals morning, day and night.”
Darcy jokes, “When we go home for summer, she’s still cooking and cleaning all day for us, even though she doesn’t really have to! But, it wasn't easy for our parents,” said the Blaze recruit more seriously. “We were always on the go whether it was summer or winter time. But it kept us all healthy and active, and we always had something to do!"
Proud Dad, Tom, who also went to Denver on a hockey scholarship in the 70's and earned a business administration degree before returning home to start the family said, "It was tons of sacrifice, but we’re pretty proud of how they’ve been so successful. We don’t boast about them. We’re pretty humble people but yeah, it’s been a joy to watch them."
Tom, who runs a hockey skills camps and has coached each of his boys at some point continued, "I've been involved in hockey throughout my lifetime and I just passed it on to the boys. One of the things was that there’s not much to do in Winnipeg in winter time.
“I enjoyed the game and when Travis, our oldest, started going to the rink, he enjoyed it and the other boys just followed. But Winnipeg is hockey country, so it is pretty easy to drive them that way. I’m not going to say that I pushed them, but I wanted them to do something that was enjoyable for them.”
Having to divide attention to the thriving careers of their children was a challenge for Tom and Trish, each enjoying proud moments of their sons, but having to miss out on others.
“When Travis was drafted to the NHL, I wasn’t able to be there because Darcy was graduating at the same time,” said Trish. “But Tom was there and it was so exciting to see them on TV and just waiting there. It was just a wonderful moment.”
Darcy was never to be drafted to the NHL like his older brother, however, after two years on an AHL deal with the Albany Devils, he was to sign a two-way NHL deal with the same team as Travis, the New Jersey Devils in 2013.
“A couple of teams looked at me but I guess the Devils saw something in me," commented Darcy.
Lou Lamoriello, then General Manager of the New Jersey Devils' organisation and now Toronto Maple Leafs said, “We liked his character, work ethic and family genes.”
Although only icing at the highest level in pre-season action, Darcy proudly stuck around at the AHL level for a total of five years amassing 260 games with 79 points. Travis meanwhile, has iced 12 times for Team Canada and will pass 800 NHL games this coming season, with near 400 points. In 2011, Kelly, the third oldest brother was also signed as part of the Devils’ organisation, playing over 120 games at the AHL level.
“It was definitely fun playing pro hockey with Kelly,” said Darcy. “It’s nice to have family around because it makes everything even more competitive. Even when we were young, we’d go to the rink and fights would break out because we’re all so competitive. It was special that the three of us were in the same organisation. It shows what hard work and patience can bring.”
Lamoriello, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and inductee into the hockey hall of fame, agrees with Darcy’s self-assessment, “Humility and hard work are what the Zajac’s are all about. They are a tremendous family.”
The call-up to the NHL level for pre-season, is surely a highlight of Darcy’s career. Not many get even the smallest opportunity and it’s something he says he looks back fondly on.
“It was a morale boost. It was a long couple of years in the AHL and I wasn’t getting any younger. Looking back on it now, I learned that anything can happen, regardless of what league you’re in, you just need to come to the rink with the right attitude and just prepare the same way. You have to keep trying to make strides forward and good things can happen.”
Hockey is a short career for players, full of unforgettable experiences. But, for most who don’t manage to make their millions in the NHL, there will come a time when the real-world kicks in, for the Zajac boys though, they are well prepared thanks to the advice of their Father.
“We’ve always thought that education is important,” Dad said. “The direction I guess I pushed the guys was that I said, ‘This is what’s available if you want to work towards it and get yourself an education, which is needed nowadays, and you get to do something that you like while you’re doing it.’”
Darcy, graduated from the well-respected University North Dakota, as described by Head Coach Danny Stewart as "one of the top NCAA programmes" in 2010. 166 games and 54 points, Zajac left the University a WCHA league Champion, assistant captain, a three time all-academic team selectee and with a wheel-barrow full of University awards, praising him for his leadership, high academic standards and athletic excellence. In addition to two appearances at the Frozen-Four, the strong two-way forward was also the holder of other proud personal records, including owning a plus or even plus/minus rating in 35 of his 41 games in 2007/08 and winning 393 face-off's the following season (over 50%).
Since the young age, for Darcy his game was never entirely based on numbers. Perhaps not being blessed with the same natural scoring touch of his older NHL brother, the right shot winger says, “I'm not going to say we're completely opposite, but there are a lot of details in his game and my game that are completely different. I like to play a more gritty game. I obviously don't have the finesse and offensive ability he has. But that doesn't mean I can't put pucks in the net! I like to think I bring solid two-way hockey, contributing on offense as well as playing solid defensively, while allowing my physical game to create room for myself and teammates. I like to get in front of the net and do what it takes to win the game.”
Often asked about the brotherly connection, Travis a first-round pick by the Devils in 2004 who signed an eight-year, $46 million contract in January 2013 commented, “As much as my brothers look up to me, I definitely look up to them the same way and more. We’ve always been there to support each other since we were small and played hockey every day together. Darcy has created his own success in the game. He wasn’t handed opportunities, he went out there and made them for himself. I think he's more of a checking, energy player. He’s good on draws, he does all the little things well. He'll be in on plays, fore-checking and hitting people.”
After his contract ended with the Devils’ organisation last summer, heading towards his 30’s, Darcy decided it was time for a change, a move to Europe, signing with SønderjyskE of the Danish Metal Ligaen despite high interest from Blaze at that time too.
Director of Hockey Operations James Pease, never gave up on his target though, continuing to stay in touch. His perseverance this past week paid off with the 29-year-old Zajac putting pen-to-paper on a deal for the 2016/17 Elite League season.
“We were disappointed to miss out on Darcy back in January, as we felt he had the qualities to make a real difference to us, said Pease. “But, we respected his decision to go to a massive and successful organisation in Denmark. Then, the next month Chris Bruton came to us and the rest as they say is history. Things happen for a reason, and when the chance came up again to bring Darcy to Coventry we didn’t need to think twice about it, the homework had been done already and we got the deal completed quite quickly. We think Darcy has similar qualities to Chris, and who can forget that play-off semi-final hatrick?! In the Elite League you need to be able to score goals in different ways and we think Darcy will help us to do that, as Chris did.”
Darcy, who posted 19 points in 29 games for SønderjyskE says he is looking forward to his first experience in the UK, a league he feels will fit is style well.
“It’s exciting to continue my career in the UK. The league has been consistently growing and becoming more competitive and I look forward to getting over in August.”
When the Canadian does arrive in the Midlands, not everything will be unfamiliar, having already formed a close bond with the current Captain of the Blaze, Jordan Pietrus in the past.
“Growing up in Winnipeg, Jordan and I have been long-time friends and summer training partners. Together we’ve watched each other careers grow. It’s exciting to finally get to play together.”
See Darcy Zajac make is Blaze debut against the Nottingham Panthers at the Skydome Arena on Wednesday 24th August (7.30pm). Tickets will be on sale two weeks before the game.
Watch a short video about Darcy for SRT News:
- Zajac’s Blaze Blue Army Warm-up jersey is still available to Own and Loan for a price of £100. Call the Blaze office on 02477 719919
- Additionally, you can sponsor an item of his kit for as little as £5 (see more information).
Past quotes taken and re-written from the following articles: