Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Zajac to finally hit ice in hometown

Devil has been looking forward to this night

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In the last year and a half, he's been so close to it so many times that he could nearly touch it, hear it and taste it.

And now patience is paying off for Travis Zajac. After 494 regular-season and playoff games, he's going to finally get to play his first NHL contest in his hometown.

Zajac's New Jersey Devils visit the Winnipeg Jets tonight at the MTS Centre.

The 27-year-old centre missed the chance to experience the NHL revival in Winnipeg in Season No. 1 when an Achilles tendon injury prevented him from playing all but 15 regular-season games at the very end of the schedule.

"Excited is an understatement for where he's at," grinned Devils coach Pete DeBoer on Wednesday. "He's been looking forward to this game for over a year.

"I know he had it targeted last year as a potential game that he would be back for after his injury but unfortunately he didn't get back in time. Then he had a setback and we didn't get him back, really, until the playoffs, at close to 100 per cent."

Since then, Zajac had a pretty successful playoff, though it ended in disappointment in the Stanley Cup final, then he was here on several occasions during the lockout, visiting family, working out with local NHL players and still anticipating that very first family home game.

"I knew that obviously whenever the season would get underway, at some time or other I'd have a chance to come back here and play," Zajac said Wednesday. "I didn't know when. But it was definitely exciting when you know you'll have a chance, especially in front of my family.

"It's something you can look forward to."

He said there's no doubt it helped him on many of those cold mornings a few kilometres at the MTS Iceplex.

"It was a different experience," he said. "You have a lot of time to skate and work out and some days you don't want to because you don't know when it's going to end."

Keep in mind while you're watching tonight's game that Zajac shared the same lockout ice and developed a pretty good rapport with several Jets opponents like Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Olli Jokinen and Jim Slater.

"We had a good group of guys here who liked coming to the rink and liked working on things to get better," Zajac said. "And that made it that much more enjoyable. There are a lot of good people around and we had a good environment and it made the days not too incredibly long."

And when those anxious four months were over, Zajac found a healthy reward from the Devils organization. Instead of becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2013 season, he signed a new $46-million contract that covers the following eight seasons.

"It's very humbling that New Jersey wants me here for that long," Zajac said. "Obviously I want to be here, continue my career here. It's a first-class organization.

"In New Jersey we're going to have a chance to win every year with the coaching staff we have and Lou (Lamoriello, the GM), you know he'll do whatever it takes so this team can have success.

"It's the environment I wanted to surround myself with both on and off the ice. For me, it was an easy decision. I like New Jersey, I like playing there, I like my teammates and everything about it ... I wanted to be here."

Tonight, the former Jets 1.0 fan plays his first real game in Winnipeg in about a dozen years.

"St. James Canadians," he said, naming his last team here.

And his own ticket count for friends and family?

"Quite a few; probably in the 20s," Zajac said, smiling.

"And others have got (their own) tickets. It's been on the radar for a while."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2013 D7

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