It was not a Christmas Eve of tidings and good cheer for Zack Zulkanycz.
That was the day Zulkanycz received a call from Dubuque Fighting Saints head coach Matt Shaw and learned that he would no longer be on the roster of the Tier I United States Hockey League club.
“At first I was a little broke up by it,” said Zulkanycz, a 2012 graduate of Kenai Central. “I was loving where I was.
“But with my being old, I knew the whole time it was a possibility. From the hockey point of view, it made sense.”
USHL teams are allowed to keep just four players with 1994 birthdates — or four players in their last year of junior eligibility.
Zulkanycz, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound forward, beat the odds by making the Saints with a 1994 birthdate, but couldn’t beat those odds for a full season.
Making it particularly tough was a knee injury Zulkanycz sustained in late October that kept him out of the lineup until Dec. 19. He played 10 games for the Saints, finishing with one goal.
“It was a tough situation because they were winning with him in the lineup, but they kept winning when he got injured,” Brown Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “That injury let the younger guys get more experience.”
And Beauparlant said USHL clubs like to keep their rosters as young as possible to build for the future.
“They told me it had nothing to do with my play,” Zulkanycz said. “They said they wished I was a year younger.
“They have one of the best teams this year, but they also want to have one of the best teams next year. The way to do that is with young guys.”
But Zulkanycz, with his knee fully healed, quickly turned his attention to his next opportunity — to finish out his career with the hometown Brown Bears of the Tier II North American Hockey League.
“I’m excited to be back,” said the son of Dan and Lisa Zulkanycz of Kenai. “Realistically, it’s where I belong. It’s where my career started, and it’s where my career will end.
“It’s not like I got traded somewhere I didn’t want to go. I get to go back home and live with my family and play in front of fans I’ve played for my whole life. I love playing at home.”
Zulkanycz started with the Bears in 2012-13, notching six goals and 13 assists while being a minus-4. Last season, he had seven goals, 16 assists and was a plus-12.
Beauparlant said the same, feisty Zulkanycz has returned to the Bears.
“He’s going to put his heart and soul into an organization,” Beauparlant said. “He’s going to put all his chips in the middle.
“That’s the way he was there, and once he was released and moved back to us, he’s been the same way here.”
Zulkanycz has yet to register a point in his six games back, but that is not what concerns him. The Bears have not won in their last 12 games.
“Obviously, everybody thinks about points, but what’s more important is we need two points as a team,” he said. “The points will come when wins come.”
Zulkanycz said he knows the transition back to the NAHL can be tough.
“I think guys come back and try to do too much,” he said. “They try and do more than what their game allows them to do.
“I’m going to stick to the same game I was playing in Dubuque, and that’s being a hard, in-your-face-type player. I’m not going to carry the puck too much and take opportunities when they’re given.”
Zulkanycz said another difference is the nature of those opportunities. Gone are the times when NHL draft picks somehow find him in perfect scoring position with a perfect pass.
“Here, you’re relying on every single person,” he said. “You can’t just watch an NHL draft pick do everything.”
Playing in the USHL pretty much guarantees a Division I scholarship, while those deals are tougher to come by in the NAHL.
Zulkanycz said he was getting Division I interest in Dubuque. Beauparlant sees no reason that will change.
“My philosophy is if teams were interested in him when he was in the USHL, why wouldn’t they still be interested at this level?” the coach said. “He’s still the same player he was three weeks ago. It’s not like he morphed into a different player.”
In fact, Zulkanycz said he’s hoping to be a better player, just like the rest of his squad, now that they are back home after a 13-game road trip.
“Being away is tough on everyone’s schedule,” Zulkanycz said. “The pregame routine, dressing in your own locker room, it will be nice being back at home this weekend.”