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Former UND great Travis Zajac announces retirement from pro hockey

Only three players in program history have played more NHL regular-season games than Zajac.

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New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac (19) passes the puck defended by New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) during the third period at Prudential Center. The Devils defeated the Rangers 3-2. Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
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There are two statistics that sum up Travis Zajac's hockey career.

No. 1: In his last 20 years of playing hockey — a span that included three years of juniors (one in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and two in the British Columbia Hockey League), two years at UND and 15 professional seasons — Zajac only led his team in scoring once. That came in his third and final year of juniors with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks more than 17 years ago.

No. 2: Out of the 291 players selected in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, only one has played more NHL games than Zajac — Alexander Ovechkin.

Zajac was never the main attraction or big star on his teams, nor did he play flashy style of game. Perhaps, that's why he was one of the most underappreciated players, quietly flying under the radar as he put together one of the best NHL careers of any player to come through UND.

Zajac announced his retirement from his playing career Monday. He will immediately transition into a front-office job with the New Jersey Devils as an on/off-ice player development consultant, who also will work to grow the franchise's youth hockey initiatives.

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After Zajac left UND in 2006 to sign a pro contract with the Devils, then-coach Dave Hakstol summed up Zajac by saying he could count on one hand the number of subpar practices he had during his two seasons in Grand Forks.

That consistency and reliability led to an NHL career that spanned 15 seasons and 1,037 regular-season games. Only three former UND players have suited up in more NHL games: James Patrick (1,280), Craig Ludwig (1,256) and Zach Parise, who is at 1,060 and counting.

All but 13 of Zajac's regular-season games came in New Jersey, where he served as an alternate captain for seven seasons. The others came with the New York Islanders this season, the final year of an eight-year, $46-million contract. Zajac made more than $60 million during his NHL career.

How Zajac landed at UND

The Winnipeg native was not pegged for stardom from the start.

In fact, in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility, 2003, he was not among 292 players selected.

UND head coach Brad Berry, who was an assistant at the time, stumbled upon Zajac by chance. Berry traveled to Salmon Arm to watch another Silverbacks player when Zajac caught his eye.

Berry asked Salmon Arm's then-owner Andy Murray, who recently was the head coach at Western Michigan, about Zajac.

Murray told Berry, "This kid is going to be special," and predicted he'd have a long pro hockey career.

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"We ended up directing our focus on Travis instead of the other kid," Berry said.

That worked out well. UND landed Zajac and he played college hockey for two seasons. He finished second on the team in scoring both years, twice helping UND to the NCAA Frozen Four.

Zajac tallied 86 points in 91 games before signing with New Jersey, which selected him No. 20 overall in Zajac's second year of draft eligibility, 2004.

"He was very quiet, but he had a professionalism to him," Berry said. "He came to the rink and worked extremely hard. He wasn't a vocal guy, but the other guys saw how intentional he was every day in the weight room and on the ice. A big part of our game is faceoffs, so we start with the puck. He took pride in that."

UND began keeping faceoff stats in 2003. Zajac still holds single-season school records with 1,151 faceoff attempts and 649 faceoff wins in 2005-06. It's not like UND didn't have any other capable centers to take draws that season, either. The second-line center was Jonathan Toews.

Berry also recalled the dominance of Zajac and Drew Stafford on the penalty kill that season. They combined for nine shorthanded goals.

"They not only killed penalties," Berry said, "they'd get like two or three shots against the other team every time they went out there. They dominated together."

Lengthy NHL career

After his sophomore season, Zajac signed with the Devils. He played two games in the American Hockey League in the spring of 2006 on an amateur tryout deal. Once his NHL deal kicked in, he never spent a day in the minors.

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While Zajac never led the Devils in scoring, he finished top-four eight times and top-three six times. Zajac had 203 goals and 552 points. In his draft class, the only players with more points are Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Blake Wheeler and David Krejci.

"Everyone in the NHL appreciates that Travis Zajac's work ethic and style of play were reflective of the New Jersey Devils," general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. "His training, discipline and focus rubbed off on every player who walked into that locker room over his 15-year career."

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Devils weren't able to acknowledge Zajac for his 1,000th-career NHL game in front of the fans, so they will recognize him on March 10, 2022, when the Devils play his hometown Winnipeg Jets.

"As a kid playing hockey on the outdoor rinks in Winnipeg, I dreamt about playing in the NHL. Growing up the oldest of four boys, it was the perfect hockey environment," Zajac said, referring to his brothers Darcy (UND), Kelly (Union) and Nolan (Denver). "Thanks to my parents' unwavering support in our lives, that dream became a reality. Then, I got to live that childhood goal for 15 years with the Devils."

Most NHL regular-season games by UND players

1,280 — James Patrick (1983-04)

1,256 — Craig Ludwig (1982-99)

1,060 — Zach Parise (2005-present)

1,037 — Travis Zajac (2006-21)

1,009 — Dave Christian (1979-94)

988 — Murray Barron (1989-04)

963 — Ed Belfour (1988-07)

943 — Jonathan Toews (2007-present)

915 — Troy Murray (1982-96)

871 — Jason Blake (1998-12)

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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