By Jean DePlacido
---- — He is the lone American on his team, one that plays 641 miles away from his own residence in Danvers.
Yes, there are days that Zac Zakas misses his family. A lot.
But the 6-foot-1, 185-pound defenseman doesn’t question his decision to play junior hockey in the Maritimes Hockey League, hoping it will lead to something bigger and better, be it in college or at the professional level in the United States or Europe.
The 20-year-old Zakas is in his second, and final, year of playing for the Bridgewater Junior A Lumberjacks, based out of Nova Scotia, Canada. He has found a home away from home with his billet family, Gail and Ralph Dicks,
“I had offers to play NCAA hockey this year, but I loved it so much up here in Nova Scotia that I couldn’t turn down the chance to play my last year of juniors,” said Zakas, who played for head coach Buddy Taft at the Pingree School his freshman and sophomore years of high school before transferring to Danvers High.
An assistant captain for the Lumberjacks, Zakas said his decision to play in Canada has been one he’ll never regret because the level of hockey there is high and he has improved his game tremendously. He is hoping it will end with a long playoff run, and even though the team is young the Jacks are in a position to make the playoffs.
He played two years of Midget AAA hockey with the Boston Junior Rangers out of Raynham before deciding he wanted to go the Junior A route. The highest such level in the Boston area, however, is the Eastern Junior Hockey League Tier III, which Zakas said costs around $8,000 per player.
“I come from a blue collar family,” said Zakas, who is grateful for the constant support his family has shown him throughout his career. “My dad runs a heating oil business and my mom has a daycare out of our house. I knew Junior A hockey was free in Canada, and over the summer I skated with a few teams in Ontario. It’s difficult to make a Canadian team, though, because as an American you’re considered an import.”
Fortunately, Zakas connected with Billy McGuigan two summers ago.
Life in the Maritimes
McGuigan, who had just been named head coach of the Summerside Western Capitals on Prince Edward Island, invited him to training camp. He told Zakas if he didn’t make the team, he’d try to find some other place for the big defenseman to skate. Zakas was interested and loved the fact that Summerside would host the Royal Bank Cup in 2013, the National Junior A championship for all Canada.
So Zakas hopped in his car to make the 14-hour trip to PEI and programmed his GPS, but it broke halfway through the journey and he had to rely on maps to find his way. Zakas eventually arrived, but only an hour before the first on-ice training camp session after sleeping in his car to save money.
“When the general manager found out I had been sleeping in my car, he got me a hotel room,” said Zakas. “I survived a week of cuts and was placed with a billet family.
“Playing in Summerside was unbelievable. You’re outfitted head to toe with gear and get free sticks. The rink was amazing, a lot like Tsongas Arena (in Lowell).”
Zakas was traded to Bridgewater in late October of 2011, where he played the rest of last season. Although the team failed to make the playoffs, he got plenty of ice time and his game improved considerably.
“He’s a steady, stay-at-home, puck-moving defenseman,” Lumberjacks head coach Terry Rhindress told CKBW News when Zakas was acquired. “Nothing flashy, and he’s not going to jump up and throw a lot of offense at you. But he’s going to settle things down on the blue line for us.”
Zakas has settled in with the Dicks family, who are avid hockey fans as well as Lumberjacks’ season ticket holders. He is the family’s third billet and has fit right in.
“Zac is an amazing young man. He came to our home in October (2012). He is always polite and very respectful and has become a part of our family,” said Gail Dicks. “Our 16-year-old son and Zac get along great, and we really enjoy spending time with him.
“When it comes to hockey, you only have to talk to him for a very short time to see that this is his passion. He is very dedicated, working out at the local YMCA whenever he has a chance, and is also taking university classes online while he’s here. He gets along well with teammates, and one of them shares a room with him.
“Zac takes his role as a key defenseman very seriously, and the organization recognizes his leadership abilities and dedication to the team.”
Dicks said her family has been season ticket holders for four years and have been a host family for Lumberjack players for a year-and-a-half. At one time during training camp, there were four members of the team living with the Dicks.
“As much as we love the games, we love the boys more,” said Dicks. “Lots of times we have a number of the boys here and have had a couple of barbecues for the whole team. We wouldn’t trade a minute of this experience.”
The feeling is mutual. Zakas said the Dicks have been wonderful to him, making the adjustment to life so far away from home so much easier.
“The hardest part of being in Nova Scotia is being away from my family, but the family I live with here has been amazing,” said Zakas, who is listed on eliteprospects.com. “It’s awesome playing on a Friday night in front of 1,000 screaming people. Since the town is so small,, you’re treated like a celebrity. I get stopped all the time for autographs, and everyone seems to know who you are no matter where you go. It’s a really amazing feeling. We do a lot of volunteer work as a team visiting schools and helping youth teams at practice.”
Hockey is a business
Zakas said hockey is very different in Canada from what he was used to in this country, but he was well prepared. He had talked to a couple of players from the Rangers that moved on to play in Canada, and they had plenty of good things to say about it.
A lot of time is spent on the road and in hotels. When the Lumberjacks travel to Woodstock, New Brunswick, it’s an 8-hour trip that usually involves three nights on the road with games in Campbellton, Miramici and Woodstock before busing back home. No spot on the roster is guaranteed, and players can be traded or even sent home if they aren’t playing well.
“Hockey is a business here, and your job is never secure since you do not pay to play,” said Zakas. “You learn quickly that your job is expendable.
“Players wear visors instead of a cage and fighting is allowed. It’s not uncommon to see four or five fights in a single game,” he added. “The people live and breathe hockey here, and the players have a lot more skill than in the U.S. It is a much faster style of play.”
Zakas is grateful to McGuigan for helping him find a Canadian Junior A team. His offer came at a time when Zakas was doubtful he would ever get the chance to play in Canada; now he’s living his dream and is excited about the future.
He has always dreamed of playing in the NHL some day.
“I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” he said. “I want to keep working my way up the ranks as high as possible.”