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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Youngest Zajac blazes solitary trail

U of Denver freshman is local family's lone blue-liner

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Nolan ZAJAC doesn't even attempt the cookie-cutter explanation, mainly, he says, because there is no one identifiable reason he is the hockey family's only defenceman.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Zajac said in a recent interview after an NCAA game in Grand Forks, N.D. "I have no idea. That's the No. 1 question I get from people.

"I wanted to be a goalie when I was little, so defence was the best fit. I want to score goals but I also want to help defend, so defence is the best spot for me."

"Other than that, no idea."

The youngest of four brothers, Nolan, now 20, is a freshman blue-liner with the University of Denver Pioneers.

His three older brothers. Travis of the New Jersey Devils, Darcy of the AHL's Albany Devils and Kelly of the ECHL's Trenton Titans, all forwards, may have planted the goalie idea long ago.

"Maybe he was a little wider than the rest of us, so goal was a good place for him," Travis laughed the other day.

The matter of position, though, simply speaks to Nolan's determination to do his own thing.

Travis and Darcy both attended the University of North Dakota. Kelly spent four years at Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y.

Nolan, however, opted for Denver, where his father Tom played hockey in the 1970s, and it wasn't a hard choice.

They just recruited me," Nolan said. "They were really passionate about me coming, really wanted me to come to Denver. It just seemed like the right fit for me.

"Also, my dad played here and it was pretty special. He's kind of a quiet guy and wanted me to go wherever I wanted to, but I'm sure in the back of his mind he's happy."

The Pioneers obviously didn't do enough to attract the family's most accomplished player, Travis, who played in last spring's Stanley Cup final but were able to keep something of a legacy intact by converting on Nolan, who was an impact player in the USHL for three seasons.

Nolan said he didn't need to be immune from pressures to enroll elsewhere, because there were none.

"None at all from my brothers," he said.

"They all know Denver's a good place to play. They were happy for me."

Nolan Zajac's stay in the USHL with Cedar Rapids and then Omaha was longer than many players'.

After being dealt early in his third season, he scored 11 goals and 39 points in 53 games in Omaha.

"I just felt like another year would be good for my development, get a little stronger," he said. "Also kind of Denver wanted me to a little bit. They had a lot of D-men here so I just felt it would be more beneficial to play a bit more in the USHL.

"I think it worked out just right. It put me in a pretty good spot so far this year and I'm happy about that."

The Pioneers blazed from the starting gate this season and Zajac has taken a regular turn. In the first half, 16 games, he has two goals and 10 points.

The former member of the Winnipeg Thrashers, through USHL seasons of 11, 30 and 40 points, was passed over in the NHL draft.

"Didn't expect to," he said. "It really doesn't bother me at all.

"I feel like my size (listed at 5-10, 180 pounds) hindered me a bit. But overall, it does not matter to me. It's all about what you do after."

While he's taking his own road, now with half a college season under his belt, Nolan is clearly his brothers' biggest supporter.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2012 D2

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