BY JAMIE MACDONALD I FEB. 5, 2013
|On his goals for a successful career: You want to meet a lot of
good people. You want to make good friends with your teammates,
people you're going to keep in touch with. Along with winning –
you want to win – being a local guy, playing with the Wild, how
cool it would be to win a championship. You'd love to get that out
of it, too.
The kid had a key. As hook-ups go, Zach Parise's access to ice couldn’t have been better. This goes back a few years, well before he had inked a staggering NHL contract or made an indelible impact on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team, to his high school days at Shattuck-St. Mary's. At the time, his dad, one-time Minnesota North Stars forward J.P. Parise, himself a hard-working cult hero of sorts in Canadian hockey lore, was running the hockey program at the private school on an idyllic campus in Faribault, Minn.
Playing at Shattuck, where hockey is as much a way of life as anything and players were on the ice at least an hour every day, perhaps Parise didn't need extra ice time. But to get to know him is to understand why he had the key to the on-campus rink.
And not just a key to the rink. The Zamboni, too. Yes, before Parise had his driver's license, he was firing up the hulking ice-resurfacing machine so he could not only practice at regularly scheduled times, but also as the mood struck him and his teammates.
"Eventually, I learned how to drive the Zamboni so we could have good ice all the time,” Parise said, looking back recently. “The rink guys, we had a good relationship with them, and [if it was late] they would just go home for the night. They'd let us close down the rink by ourselves.”
Would you trust a teenager with the keys to your building? Storing heavy machinery? There aren't many teens to whom one might comfortably hand over such a responsibility, but Parise has a certain knack for deserving what has come his way.
He is, simply, one of the hardest working players in hockey. And he’s been that way since his days at Shattuck.
“I think that's that type of reputation my dad had, too, just being a hard-working player,” he said. “I inherited that from him. I never did see him play, but that's what I hear was his best characteristic. And that's what worked for me as a player.”
Parise also pairs that work ethic with an elite skill set. Both were on display when in 2002 he led the United States to its first-ever gold medal at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship (seven goals, including the tournament-winner, in eight games). And again in 2004 when he led the United States to its first-ever gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship (he was named tournament MVP).
And, of course, in Vancouver during the 2010 Games.
As part of the United States’ newest generation of outstanding young players, Parise starred throughout the tournament, tying for the team lead in points (eight) and goals (four), and leading Team USA with two game-winners in six games.
He also dramatically drew the United States within a goal of a gold medal in the Olympic final against Canada. With time running out and his team trailing, 2-1, in front of an appropriately partisan crowd, Parise tied the game at the 59:35 mark. He managed to get his stick on a loose puck in front of the net and hammered it home.
A combination of hard work and skill. Not unlike Parise himself. Right place, right time. Again. How does it keep happening for Parise?
“Oh, I don't know,” he said, his voice as level-headed as it reads. “It's just being prepared (for the moments). It's just repetition. It's being in the right spot. You look at certain guys and they just seem to always score in overtime in the playoffs. For whatever reason, they fight to have the puck on their stick at that time. I guess I picked the right spot at the time. And you're prepared for that one shot, that you're going to get the one chance. I don't know; it's a tough question to answer.”
After the goal against Canada, Parise exploded, shoulder-bumping the glass. The bench erupted in celebration. Parise was quickly mobbed along the boards.
“It's one of those moments when you don't even know (what happened),” he said. “You just see it go in. You don't even know what you're thinking at the time because you're in there yelling with the group of guys on the ice, and you're so excited.”
An extra session loomed. Pressure mounted.
“Going into the intermission, it started to sink in a little bit,” Parise recalled. “And you're thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we score one goal and we win the Olympics.’ Just those 15 minutes was such an intense thing, sitting back and realizing where we were. It was incredible.”
And while the United States settled for silver (Shattuck alum Sidney Crosby scored the OT game-winner for Canada), it remains a memory Parise holds dear.
“Every play, it was such a tight game, such a tight tournament, that every play could shift your chances of winning just like ... that,” Parise said. “That was one of the few times when that's in the back of your mind as a player.”
|On anyone who knocked his game: Oh, I don’t care. I've learned
there are people who have their own opinions. I've heard the
whole, “He's too small,” before I made it to the NHL. Again, I don't
care. You know you're not going to please everybody. That's the
way life is. You're not going to make everybody happy and you're
wasting energy trying to. So, I try not to pay attention too much
attention to that.
This past offseason, Parise again found himself in the right place at the right time – coming off a fifth 30-goal season and an appearance in the Stanley Cup final, and heading into free agency.
His unique blend of effort and talent made him perhaps the biggest fish in the 2012 free agent pond. In early July, he signed one of hockey's richest contracts, a 13-year deal with the Minnesota Wild.
He was asked if the money would change him, and he almost laughed.
“No,” he said. “I mean, not at all. I'm not walking around with that in my mind, that we just signed this big deal. That's over. Now it's about playing.”
Attendant drama aside, it was also one of the offseason's feel-good stories. He was coming home, where his parents could watch him play, and he was doing so with fellow free agent and Midwesterner Ryan Suter, an elite defenseman with extensive Team USA experience who signed an identical contract.
“You look at all the really good teams, all the teams that win and they all have that top-tier, elite defenseman – a guy that can do what he does,” Parise said of Suter, whose father, Bob, played for the 1980 Miracle on Ice team. “And that's important to a team. In my mind, I thought that would be a perfect match. You have the opportunity to play with that guy and it kind of made things a lot easier.”
Rivals in youth and prep hockey, friends since 2002, both will be counted on heavily in Minnesota and in USA Hockey’s future if the NHL sends its players to the Olympic Winter Games.
Though there are a lot of factors that go into the decision and a lot of hockey to be played before one takes place, Parise would likely be in the conversation to serve as Team USA’s captain.
With the Wild in 2013, he’s done nothing to diminish his standing among the country’s best players. Though the team has been playing .500 hockey through nine games, Parise scored the 200th goal of his career on Monday night. (He chased down a loose, bouncing puck, touched it once and fired it in for his sixth goal of the season.)
At 28, Parise has more than a few good years left on his pro hockey odometer, giving Team USA fans, hopefully, something to look forward to in Sochi and beyond. Parise points to continued success at the World Junior Championship, which the United States won again this past January, as a reason for optimism.
“You look at it, and, all of a sudden, we've won two of the last four World Juniors, where we were just trying to get a medal before,” he said. “Now you're going in with the approach, 'You know, we should win this thing.' You could say it before – maybe it was realistic, maybe it wasn't. But you can now put the U.S. right there with the Canadians and the Russians as the favorite all the time now.”
Naturally, expectations will grow for Olympic results going forward, should NHL players continue to play.
“Hopefully,” said Parise, “we can have another really good showing at the Olympics and really solidify that thought in everyone's mind – that we can be one of the powers.”
Parise is part of that trajectory. In fact, he may be the key.