Nolan Zajac followed his father Tom to the University of Denver because of the great hockey program and the school’s history of exceptional academics and its reputation for graduating NHL players.
One could say that Zajac made the right choice.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound defenseman has been a legitimate star in his freshman season at Denver and now he’ll chase his rookie dream into the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament this weekend as the Denver Pioneers take on the University of New Hampshire in the opening round of the biggest even in college hockey.
The opening rounds go this weekend with Quinnipiac against Canisius, Union against Boston College, Miami of Ohio against Minnesota State-Mankato, St. Cloud State against Notre Dame, Massachusetts-Lowell against Wisconsin, Denver and New Hampshire, North Dakota and Niagara and Yale against Minnesota.
The teams will be taking their first steps toward the Final Four which be held the weekend of April 11-13 in Pittsburgh.
There will be eight players who started their careers in Manitoba playing in the tournament. Zajac, the brother of New Jersey Devils star Travis who also played at North Dakota with brother Darcy while his other brother, Kelly, played at Union College, is the fourth young man from Winnipeg’s Zajac family to play Division 1 college hockey in the United States.
“I chose Denver because they wanted me the most,” Zajac told Roots TV. “I just thought it would be the best fit overall for me.”
Obviously it was, considering that Zajac, 20, led the nation in scoring (six goals and 20 assists in 36 games) among freshmen defensemen.
“I’m more of an offensive defensemen, for sure,” he admitted. “I get the job done in my own end, but I do like to join the rush.”
Nolan’s dad, Tom, will head out to Manchester, N.H., on Thursday for Denver’s first game. He laughed when asked if he was proud that son No. 4 ended up at his old alma mater.
“He was the only one who was asked,” Tom laughed. “Maybe the other guys didn’t play the type of style they played at Denver, I don’t know, but I’m not kidding when I say Nolan was the only one who was asked to go there.”
Tom Zajac, who will also visit with his other sons, Travis with the Devils in New Jersey and Darcy and Kelly with the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League believes that the Pioneers have a good shot at the NCAA title.
“I think they have a real good chance,” he said. “They have pretty good balance all around, they have tremendous goaltending, they have speed and scoring and good size on the back end. Unfortunately, in a tournament like this, it’s just one game. You make one mistake and it could cost you the whole thing. But going into it, I think they have a great chance.”
Zajac is one of many Manitoba NCAA stars who did not finish their junior careers in Manitoba. He played with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and the Omaha Lancers of the United States Junior League and completed high school in Cedar Rapids after being the MVP of the 2009 Telus Cup while playing for the Winnipeg Thrashers.
Of course, he’s not the only Winnipeg Thrashers MVP playing in this year’s NCAA tournament. Mat Bodie, who plays with his older brother Kyle at Union College, was the MVP of the Telus Cup in 2008. Both brothers grew up in East St. Paul, graduated from River East Collegiate in Winnipeg, but both went to play junior with British Columbia’s Powell River Kings.
Today, Kyle is a senior forward while Mat is a junior defenseman.
There are two Manitoba players at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. Matthew Backhouse from Thompson, helped Dauphin win the Manitoba Junior Hockey League championship in 2010, but finished his junior career with the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior League. Torrey Lindsay from Grosse Ile, Man., graduated from Warren Collegiate and his brother Bryn played at the University of Manitoba, but Torrey played junior with the SJHL’s Weyburn Red Wings.
The Group of Eight Manitobans headed to the Sweet 16 is rounded out by two players at the University of North Dakota. Brendan O’Donnell, who starred for the Winnipeg Blues in 2009-2010, went out and finished his career with Penticton in the B.C. Junior League. A graduate of Vincent Massey Collegiate, O’Donnell is a sophomore forward with UND. Meanwhile, Stephane Pattyn, an outstanding player with the Turnbull and Anavet Cup champion Portage Terriers in 2010-11 is an outstanding defenseman at UND and freshman forward Bryn Chyzyk from Virden, who played his junior hockey with Marlin Murray’s Dauphin Kings and for John Marks and the Fargo Force is also on the roster .
Pattyn, a walk-on at North Dakota, is now a scholarship athlete who could be tapped as a team captain next season. Of course, he was Portage’s outstanding player and team captain in 2010-11. A stay-at-home defenseman, he finished the 2012-13 season with two goals and two assists in 39 of his team’s 40 games. He’s a 2009 graduate of Ecole Pointe-des-Chenes.
There aren’t a lot of Manitobans in this year’s national tournament, but the ones who have made the Big Dance are all quality players who get a legitimate amount of ice time.
Anyone in Manitoba can watch the tournament at www.ncaa.com.