Travis Zajac embodies everything he loves about his hometown Winnipeg

WINNIPEG, MB — It is the coldest stop on the NHL circuit. Some people in hockey believe it’s the coldest place on Earth. Windchills plunge to where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet. The city’s most famous intersection, Portage Avenue and Main Street, derives some of its renown from the unproven claim that it is the coldest meeting point of two roads in the country.

This is where Travis Zajac learned to play the game he loves. While hockey players across Canada and the northern United States reminisce about the good old days of playing hockey outdoors, it’s often as a nod to pickup games at a local park or on a pond or lake near home or in the backyard.

Zajac spent nearly all of his youth hockey career outdoors. He grew up in Garden City, a small neighborhood about four miles north of downtown Winnipeg. There were no arenas in Garden City when Zajac was a kid, just two community centers with outdoor rinks.

Every practice was outside. Every game of shinny with the neighborhood kids, every organized league home game, and nearly every road game in nearby neighborhoods were played in the elements.

“It was just the way it was, I guess. There was some cold nights, for sure,” Zajac said. “You’d have the heat warmers in your skates and gloves and the balaclava under your helmet. I don’t know … the parents were out there watching, too. I know I couldn’t do that now with my kids.

“We had the odd game that was cancelled because it was too cold. But that’s just the way it was, man. I wouldn’t change it. It was a lot of fun.”

Zajac returned home with the Devils this past week. He is the son of a hockey lifer, who played at a high level and coached for many years. He is also a son of Winnipeg and Manitoba, a city and province known for forging hard workers. It’s what shaped Zajac’s blue-collar, do-whatever-it-takes brand of hockey that propelled him from undrafted by his region’s major junior league at 15 to a long, successful NHL career.

He returns to Winnipeg every summer with his wife and kids, but the business trips haven’t been very successful. The Devils’ 2-1 shootout win last Tuesday was only their third in 10 trips since the franchise moved from Atlanta to Manitoba and rebranded as the Jets.

It was a quintessential Zajac performance. He played 17 minutes and did not have a shot on goal, but he was arguably the most important player on the ice for the Devils.

Zajac spent 5:28 on the ice at 5-on-5 against Winnipeg’s elite No. 1 center Mark Scheifele. The Devils had seven shot attempts during that time; the Jets had one. When Zajac was on the ice against either of the Jets’ top two lines, the Devils controlled the game and muted the offensive impact of high-end skill players like Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.

“He’s a humble guy,” Tom Zajac, Travis’ father, said. “He knows what his job is and he does his job. When he doesn’t do his job, he’s not happy. I have respect for him, for what he has to do to play the way he does. Because he gets the hard minutes. He and whoever is playing with him goes against the top guys, he takes the defensive zone faceoffs. Those aren’t easy minutes. I’m proud of him in that respect.”

Spending some time retracing Zajac’s roots, both in the city and with his father, provides a window into the evolution of a player who has spent 14 years in the NHL and earned the utmost respect from teammates and foes alike.

Seven Oaks Arena did not exist when Travis and his three brothers were growing up in Garden City. It was completed in 2015, a sparkling, modern indoor hockey hub.

It’s part of the Garden City Community Centre, which had two outdoor rinks when the Zajacs were navigating the local youth hockey system. Only one remains and doesn’t yet feature ice in early November. The demand isn’t as high with the two indoor sheets available year-round.

The area where Zajac changed in and out of his gear and braced for a walk out into the elements looks much older than the new arena, with its modern changing rooms, pro shop and concessions.

It’s about a five-minute drive from Seven Oaks to Vince Leah Recreation Centre, which is a short walk from the Zajac home and looks like it hasn’t changed much since a young Travis spent countless nights there after school.

There is a physical building, much smaller than the new facility a few minutes away, and clearly aging from the exterior. It provided a place to change before and after, and a safe haven to sneak in and warm up on the coldest days. But the focus for the kids in the neighborhood were the two outdoor rinks.

The benches provided some cover for the players, but, according to Tom, the kids always hoped to play on the sheet closest to the spartan recreational centre. On the other rink, you more exposed to Manitoba’s howling winds.

Tom Zajac played at the University of Denver in the mid-1970s. He started out as a youth coach for Travis, and eventually coached all four sons. Each of them became professional hockey players — Darcy, Kelly and Nolan all climbed as high as the American Hockey League.

Darcy and Kelly spent several years with the Devils’ affiliate in Albany, and Tom still organizes and runs a series of hockey campswith his two middle sons.

Being around his dad helped Travis grow into the player he is today, but all those trips to Vince Leah and Garden City Community Centre for pickup games did, as well.

“I feel like that’s where you really learn the game,” he said. “You’d go to the (outdoor) rink and there would be 20 kids there. They’re different ages and it didn’t matter if they were better, bigger or smaller, you get a group together for a scrimmage and that’s how you learned to really play. If you wanted to get the puck from a bigger guy, how to use your body or use your stick, you learned how to keep it away. Maybe you don’t have as much of that now. It’s all about skill and shooting and skating and technique. There it was all about reading the play and making good passes. It was different. I’m glad it was, because I really felt like that helped me so much.”

Travis played several other sports when he was younger, including baseball, lacrosse, soccer and football. Hockey became his sole athletic focus at 12 or 13 years old. He started playing at 4, and spent much of the next seven or eight years with his father as his coach.

“I think as a parent-coach, I was tough on them,” Tom said. “I ignored him maybe when I shouldn’t have, maybe was harder on him when I shouldn’t have been.”

His eldest son doesn’t see it that way. “He was a good coach. He always wanted me to make other people around me better,” Travis said.

“He thought that was what made a good hockey player, is his ability to make guys around them play better or look better. So it was always about passing and playing hard and keeping the puck, never giving the puck away. I really don’t think he was that hard on me as a coach. At least I don’t remember him that way. He didn’t push me, but he let me know what it takes to get to the next level.”

Tom is pragmatic, even when retracing his sons’ careers. It’s easy to see where the principles that guide Travis, both on the ice and off, came from.

“I remember him at 7 or 8 (years old) and thinking, ‘Man, why are you going to that spot during the game?’ He was just that far ahead of thinking the game and he was going to the right spot to intercept the pass,” Tom said.

“When I think back, yeah, he probably had that little bit of extra smarts compared to the rest of the guys. I don’t think he was ever a great skater or a great shooter, but he always understood the game. I think that’s his biggest strength. He wasn’t special, but he was a little bit further ahead than the other kids.”

Travis is closing in on 1,000 games played, all with the Devils. He’s earned a reputation as one of the top defensive centers in the league, but he also has enough skill to have collected more than 500 points in his career, including a personal-best 67 in 2009-10.

In addition to the Scheifele assignment, Zajac has faced Connor McDavid twice this season and the Devils had nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 when the two of them were matched up. He’ll see a healthy dose of Sidney Crosby later this week, if the Penguins captain is able to return from an injury.

“He was that way from Day One,” Tom said.

“I’ve thought about it over the years and me and my wife have got to take the blame for this, the way he plays. Even to this day, my wife’s kind of the same way. Not too often did we ever ask him, ‘Did you score?’ It was important, but we always made a point to ask him, ‘Did they score against you?’ That to me was more important. It’s not that we weren’t happy when he scored goals. Still to this day, if my wife misses a game, she’ll ask, ‘Did he get scored against?’

“From an early age, he was defensive. I always told him to take care of his end first and the rest will take care of itself. Maybe he didn’t have the skill to shoot and skate like Taylor Hall, but he always had those smarts. He was always a defensive-minded player. Did it hurt him in some respects? I think he flew under the radar. Everyone looks for the guy who scores a million goals, right? He was always good, but he was good in different ways. Not a lot of people said, ‘You have to go watch Travis,’ but his coach would say, ‘Man, he was great for us today.’”

That’s pretty atypical for a young hockey player. So too was Travis’ commitment to follow his father’s path.

Growing up in Winnipeg, Zajac had plenty of opportunities to play in front of Western Hockey League scouts. Still, at 14 and 15 years old, Zajac watched the WHL draft come and go without hearing his name.

Tom thinks the word had gotten out that his son was going the college route. But when Zajac moved to British Columbia to play for the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the BCHL, a couple of WHL teams kept tabs on him in case he changed his mind.

The Brandon Wheat Kings invited him to training camp, but Zajac left without signing a contract.

“I remember one team flew their coach and the whole management team in here to speak with us and Travis said, ‘No, I don’t want to go,’” said Tom. “I think he was about 16 when he said, ‘Yeah, I’m not (going to the WHL).’”

Zajac ended up playing two seasons with Salmon Arm and had an outstanding second year (43 goals and 112 points in 59 games). He kept his commitment to the University of North Dakota.

“Me being a young kid, your dad’s your hero and you want to be like him,” Travis said. “That was kind of what I had set my mind is I want to go to college, I want to get a scholarship. And really when I was 15, 16, I wasn’t drafted by the (WHL). I wasn’t the best player on my team.

“It’s maybe not the path a lot of guys go through in Canada. It was something that, for me, I don’t want to say I was a late bloomer, but it took me a while to pass different guys that were ahead of me so that helped me just grow and keep making the next steps.”

The Devils recognized Zajac’s two-way ability and selected him with the 20th pick in the 2004 draft. His teammate from Salmon Arm, Kris Chucko, went four picks later to Calgary.

It’s rare for two players from a Junior A league to be first-round picks, let alone former teammates. Zajac and Chucko were the first pair from the BCHL to do it.

In 2019, a potential first-round pick with three younger hockey-playing brothers would have a small army of people at the NHL draft with him. That was often the case 15 years ago, too, but at least one family did not know that.

“I had a goal for him and that was to get a scholarship and play college hockey,” Tom said. “I played college hockey, so that was as far ahead as I thought. I still remember when he got drafted, he had an advisor and I asked him, ‘Do you think we should go? I don’t know anything about the draft. I’ve never watched the draft in my life.’ He said, ‘Yeah, because Travis is probably going to go pretty early.’

“When I think back on it now, holy shit, I was pretty naive, right? Now, you see those drafts and you see they’ve got 15 family members. There was only me and I wasn’t even going to go. He wasn’t even gonna go.”

When Zajac committed to North Dakota, his goals were to play college hockey and earn a degree. By the time he started playing for the then-Fighting Sioux, and as he quickly became one of the top players on a national championship contender, his priority shifted from a degree to playing in the NHL. 

“I didn’t know until later that I was going to have a chance at the NHL. It was always my dream,” he said. “(My dad) bugs me all the time about it. He’s like, ‘Your kids are gonna have degrees and you’re not.’ I just say that I think I’ll be all right. Maybe one day. I will have a lot of time on the hands.”

He joined the Devils after his sophomore season at North Dakota and, at 21 years old, began contributing immediately. He finished 10th in the Calder Trophy voting and added two top-10 finishes in the Selke Trophy race by the end of his fourth season.

In Zajac’s first 11 seasons, he missed more than eight games just once. In 2011-12, he made up for playing only 15 regular-season games by racking up 14 points in 24 playoff games, including an overtime goal in Game 6 of the first round against Florida that helped New Jersey avoid elimination.

One teammate can offer a unique perspective on Zajac. After the Devils traded for Cory Schneider at the 2013 draft, he and Zajac connected. Schneider was drafted six picks after Zajac in 2004. They faced each other in the NCAA tournament twice, with Zajac’s team winning in 2005 and Schneider helping Boston College get revenge in a Frozen Four semifinal matchup the next year.

But more importantly, Schneider spent three years living in Winnipeg and played three seasons with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL.

“People come here and say, ‘Why would you want to live here?’ But the people who live here are fiercely proud,” Schneider said after the morning skate last week at MTS Centre. “They love living here and they’re very proud. I found that to be true in my three years living here. My time here was awesome. It has a stigma or whatever about it, but when you come here, everyone here is blue collar, happy to help out, do whatever it takes. That’s the mentality, and Trav definitely embodies that.

“He works hard. He’s an honest player. You can use the analogy, ‘You can set your watch to him.’ You can always rely on him being in the right place and you feel good when he’s on the ice. I think that definitely speaks of the community here, because I think everyone here has each others’ backs. If you’re from Winnipeg, you’re in it together.”

His father’s coaching — always try to make your teammates better — still rings true for Zajac, now 34. He’s helped Blake Coleman develop into a key player for the Devils. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are learning from him about what it takes to play center in this league. Nikita Gusev has struggled to adapt to the NHL in his first season, but he’s showing signs of improvement.

It’s probably not a coincidence Gusev played next to Zajac in the Devils’ last two games, his most complete performances of the season.

“If you talk to any of the guys, they always say, ‘I love playing with Trav.’ He is always where he’s supposed to be,” Schneider said. “He does all the dirty things. He makes the small plays that help free up his teammates that other people sometimes don’t see.

“He’s a sneaky, funny guy. He won’t necessarily start the conversation or be the loudest guy in the conversation, but when it’s his turn to chime in or make a joke or an observation, he’s usually dead on. A man of few words, but when he speaks everyone listens and it resonates. I think he likes to just go about his business, work hard, lead by example and just set the tone that way. You can always rely on him, but he doesn’t need to try and make himself the center of attention. I think that is sort of his game, too. He is everywhere, but never really stands out, and certainly not in a bad way.”

Zajac and his wife, Nicole — who is also from Winnipeg, played hockey at New Hampshire and was a two-year captain — have settled in New Jersey and have three kids. Zenon is 7 and has already taken to the family business. Veronika is 5 and her hockey career is just getting started.

She was on the ice with her father on opening night along with 19 other female youth hockey players. Anya is 2, and her time on skates is probably coming soon.

The Zajacs are a New Jersey family, but they do return to Winnipeg every summer. Travis has shown his kids the outdoor rinks he grew up on, and he’s had more time to appreciate the rest of the city.

They spend time hanging out at The Forks, a community hub downtown along the Red River. On each visit, the Zajacs try to organize at least one big family dinner at The Keg.

“He’s definitely proud of where he’s from,” Schneider said. “He doesn’t talk about it much, but you can see it in him.”

Shortly after the Devils defeated the Jets last week, Zajac darted out of the visiting dressing room and headed toward one more quick meet-up with his family in the bowels of the arena before the team bus left for the airport and a flight to Calgary.

The weather during this visit to Winnipeg was almost balmy, with highs in the 20s (Fahrenheit), lows in the teens and some light snow to ease everyone from New Jersey into winter.

Seeing Zajac in his homegrown environment, it’s easy to understand the elements that shaped him into the player who, as his father said, “just kind of fits the Devils’ mold.”

“I think it’s just the people that come from there,” Travis said. “It’s blue-collar, hard-working, selfless people. People are always trying to better off someone else other than themselves, so I feel like the mentality is just, you work hard and good things happen. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Everyone there seems to be happy with that.”