Kelly Zajac didn’t last very long in his first Union hockey game.
Just over three minutes into a first-round matchup with Quinnipiac at Nebraska-Omaha’s Maverick Stampede on Oct. 17, 2008, Zajac was called for a five-minute checking-from-behind penalty and a game misconduct.
“Looking back on it, it’s pretty funny,” Zajac said. “My dad drove 12 hours [from Winnipeg, Manitoba] to see me. It was not the right way to start a college [career] off.”
The next 124 games have gone much better for Zajac.
The senior center is three points away from becoming the seventh Dutchmen in the Division I era to record 100 career points. He can get those points as soon as this weekend, as the 13th-ranked Dutchmen (3-1-3) begin defense of their ECAC Hockey regular-season title when they play at St. Lawrence (0-4) tonight at 7, and at Clarkson at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Zajac has 31 goals and 66 assists. When he gets his 100th point, he will join Adam Presizniuk (131), Jason Walters (115), Mario Vallery-Tabucco (114), Jordan Webb (114), Chris Ford (104) and Joel Beal (101) in the 100-point club.
“Ever since his freshman year, Kelly has gone from third-line center to, basically, a first-, second-line center his next three years,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “That kind of shows you the jump he makes in his sophomore, junior and senior year. He’s a guy that we really count on tremendously.”
Zajac never thought he would reach the milestone when he arrived at Union from the British Columbia Junior Hockey League’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
“I just wanted to come in here and be a guy that could play two-way hockey and, obviously, help offensively, but be strong in the defensive end,” Zajac said. “Just over the four years, it’s amazing to see how much I’ve progressed, and just the way the coaches have helped me along the way. Obviously, my teammates have been there, too, so it’s been a real [great] ride so far.”
After getting six goals and 14 assists his freshman season, Zajac improved to 10 goals and 14 assists the following season. Last year, he led the team in scoring with 13 goals and 29 assists. He also led the Dutchmen with five game-winning goals, and set a team Division I record for goals in a game when he got four against Sacred Heart Oct. 9.
“It’s the process,” Zajac said. “Just throwing pucks to the net and doing the little things. It’s keeping that confidence up.”
Zajac is Union’s leading scorer this season with two goals and nine assists.
“He was recruited to come in and be that third-, fourth-line center and, then as the years went on, get up in the second-line center role,” Bennett said. “I’m not going to sit here and say it’s a huge surprise that he’s a first-line center, because he works tremendously hard and he’s a focused player. And he has a lot of hockey sense. He gets the game.”
Zajac comes from a hockey family. His father Tom played at Denver University from 1973-77. Brother Travis is with the New Jersey Devils. Another brother, Darcy, is with the Albany Devils.
“We talk every week,” Zajac said. “I get to see them play a lot. You get to see the pro game, and see what you can take with that. Just the little things they helped you with along the way.
“My dad was a big influence on me. He’s taught me a lot. That’s transitioned over to my game. He always told me defense comes first, and team play comes along with individual success. That’s how I model my game.”
One other factor that has helped Zajac is that he has avoided serious injuries. He’s never missed a game in his Union career.
“Just taking care of your body [is key],” Zajac said. “Try to get the right nutritions in you. And get your [school] work done ahead of time. You don’t want to be doing work the night before a game.
“I was told a quote by my brother [Travis] — stretch your muscles, stretch your career. I try to do that every once in a while. Knock on wood, hopefully I don’t [get hurt].”
RPI faces Clarkson
After suffering through a rough October, one would think that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute would want to forget its 1-6 start and turn the page to ECACH season.
But RPI coach Seth Appert isn’t a believer in that. He wants his Engineers to remember what they did and did not do.
The Engineers visit Clarkson (5-1-2) tonight at 7, and St. Lawrence at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“Those are false things, those ‘Hey, it’s a fresh start. Let’s forget about our problems. Let’s start over.’ No, let’s get better,” Appert said. “That’s the way I look at it. If you want to have a fresh start, then you forget about some of the issues you have and you don’t work on things. You try to trick your mind into thinking everything’s good.”
RPI could have forwards Brock Higgs and Marty O’Grady back this weekend. However, forwards Jacob Laliberte and Matt Neal are doubtful.
Higgs and O’Grady each have missed the last five games. Higgs had an injury to his right index finger, and O’Grady suffered a concussion in a practice a few weeks ago.
Laliberte was slashed across the right hand late in the Oct. 15 game against Ferris State. He has missed the last three games. Neal’s right ankle was injured in practice last week. He didn’t play in last weekend’s two-game series against Colorado College.
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