By Leo Scaglione, Jr., The Fischler Report
Sitting in a corner at Santander Arena watching the Reading Royals play a late season ECHL game, it’s simple to think the Royals use a four-man forward unit each time Nolan Zajac is on the ice.
After all, the 25-year-old is nearly always side by side with them; his stat line shines with high offensive numbers; his family tradition dictates it.
Nolan’s father, Tom, was a forward at the University of Denver in the 1970s. His three siblings, all older brothers, have a history of playing forward, particularly in the New Jersey Devils organization. Travis, 32 years old and the most famous Zajac, is in his 12th season as a center with New Jersey. Darcy, 31, is retired, but he had played for the Devils’ old ECHL affiliate in Trenton and former American Hockey League affiliate in Albany. Kelly, 29, also competed in Albany, and is now with the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays.
Therefore, it’s understandable to believe Nolan is a forward, too. However, he’s the exception. He’s a defenseman.
Growing up, Nolan, 5-11, 188 pounds, actually wanted to be a goalie. Problem was he also wanted to score goals. So, he settled on being a blueliner.
“Defense was kind of a middle ground,” Nolan said, before flashing a smile that showed several missing teeth, a Zajac trademark, and adding, “and my brothers needed someone to play D against them on the outdoor rinks. Since I was the baby of the family, I was thrown into that.”
Whether he was tossed or willingly jumped into the blue-line blaze, Nolan is proficient at his job, skating in his second professional season, his first with Reading, following a four-year college career at his father’s alma mater where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies.
Travis likens his brother’s style to that of his rookie teammate in New Jersey, Will Butcher, a teammate of Nolan’s for three seasons at Denver and the 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner.
“Nolan, like Will, is a really skilled defenseman who can make plays, play on the power play and excel in all situations,” Travis asserted.
Yet it’s one of Travis’ other comrades, Sami Vatanen, whom Nolan tries to mold his game after.
“Vatanen’s a guy who can move the puck and is underrated at both ends of the ice,” Nolan stated.
In his younger years, he studied the other specimen of defensemen – the rugged, hard-hitting type.
“Believe it or not, I looked up to guys such as Scott Stevens and Chris Pronger,” Nolan reminisced. “It’s weird; I know. I don’t play anything like them. I just liked players who guys hated to play against but would love if they were on their own team.”
Being a defenseman isn’t the only thing that separates Nolan from the rest of the Zajac pack. In terms of personality and passion, Nolan says he talks the least and loves the ice game the most.
“Darcy’s the big talker, the chirper in the family,” he said. “Trav’s a little quieter, but he’s got some good one-liners. I think I love the game the most out of all of us. I watch a lot of hockey, play hockey video games and listen to hockey podcasts. I try to do everything that has to do with hockey.”
Travis agrees that Nolan is the quietest of the quartet, but chuckled at the thought that his youngest brother loves the sport the most.
“I don’t know about that,” Travis said with a grin. “He was always at the rink with us when we were younger, playing with a stick in the stands or in the hallways. Even in the summer he’s got a passion for the game. He’s probably the guy who works the hardest on his skill. I’ll give him that.”
Differences aside, Nolan has used his brothers as a resource and also as fuel to stoke his hockey fire, starting from when he was a kid.
“I wanted to do what they did,” he remembered. “On the ice, being the youngest helped me with hockey smarts because I always had to find ways to keep up with the stronger and faster big boys.”
Even now, Nolan leans on his brothers’ wisdom to increase his hockey knowledge.
“I watch all of their games, particularly Travis’ games, and I look for things that guys are doing and try to apply them to my game,” he explained. “In the offseason, I learn the skills that they were taught from coaches and try to implement them.”
Travis pointed out that he helps Nolan with hockey habits when they get together in the summer.
“I talk with him about what it takes to be a good player and to be successful, and how you have to take care of yourself with nutrition, exercise and things like that,” Travis said. “We also skate together and try to work on a few things that will help each of us out.”
The assistance has certainly aided Nolan as he continues to climb the hockey ladder.
Undrafted, Nolan finished his college career in the top-ten in scoring by defensemen in Denver history, totaling 95 points (19-76—95) in 160 games. He was selected as the team’s Most Valuable Freshman in 2012-13. In 2015-16, his senior season, he was named a co-winner with Butcher of Denver’s Keith Magnuson Award for Best Defensive Player.
Last season, Nolan finished fifth in the ECHL and second on the Toledo Walleye in scoring among defensemen with 54 points (11-43—54) in 61 games, was selected to represent the Walleye at the 2017 ECHL All-Star Classic and was named to the ECHL All-Rookie Team. He also recorded nine assists in 16 Kelly Cup playoff contests.
Better still, he earned several call-ups to the AHL, where he skated for the Hershey Bears, Manitoba Moose and Iowa Wild.
A Winnipeg native, Nolan was especially grateful to be able to not only play in his hometown with the Moose in front of family and friends, but also score his first, and to date only, AHL goal.
“The first couple of shifts were nerve-wracking,” admitted Nolan, who appeared in just one game with Manitoba. “There’s really no pressure on you to do much there, but I put pressure on myself. To score just lifted my spirits a little bit and I felt a lot better on the ice. I thought I played a good game, and it showed me that when I get the chance I can play in that league.”
During the offseason, he was traded to the Wichita Thunder and then to Reading, where he finished the 2017-18 campaign sixth in the ECHL and first on the Royals in scoring among blueliners, totaling 45 points (16-29—45) in 72 games. The most memorable match was against the host Stingrays on November 7 when for the first time in Zajac family history two brothers suited up against each other.
In the inaugural battle of Nolan versus Kelly, the older brother’s team prevailed, in overtime.
“That was a special experience,” Nolan said, beaming. “Our parents (Tom and Trish) were in South Carolina and watched it. I was out there for the opening faceoff against him and was always matched up against him on the ice. It was a lot of fun, a lot of chirping going on. I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life.”
Nolan will also treasure every other hockey game he plays, whether it’s during the season or between them.
Concluded Nolan: “I love playing; I love the competition. Even in the summer, I’ll play in beer-league games. I just love to play. It’s a fun lifestyle, and I’ll enjoy it while I can.”
Spoken like a true Zajac.