In order to make the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country, a player has to be driven to succeed.
In the case of 2012 Kenai Central graduate Zack Zulkanycz, that player had to be driven to succeed in more ways than one.
Zulkanycz has made the 23-man roster for the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints, becoming the first Kenai Peninsula player to ply his trade in the USHL since Soldotna’s Brandon Fisher in the 2010-11 season.
“It’s surreal,” said Zulkanycz, who made his Saints debut Saturday. “I still can’t really believe I’m here.
“When I was 14 or 15 I used to joke with my friends about playing in the United States Hockey League. Same thing when I was in juniors. Now it’s become reality.”
It has become reality largely due to a lifelong love affair with the game.
Zulkanycz, the son of Dan and Lisa of Kenai, said he fell in love with hockey watching Penguins games with his dad. That would be the same Penguins team that Zulkanycz, with his teammates and coaches, watched play a preseason game against the Minnesota Wild this week.
As a 7-year-old, Zulkanycz said he would practice with his Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association team for an hour, then go home and skate for four more hours in a backyard rink until his mom called him in.
But it wasn’t until eighth grade that Zulkanycz’s relationship with the game became long distance.
At that point, the Zulkanycz family decided that Zack would have to play in Anchorage if he wanted to move on one day.
“He played in Anchorage, back and forth, rain or shine, for five years,” Lisa said.
With the season going September through March, but also with a bit of a break for the high school season, Lisa said she put 60,000 miles on a car in just three years.
“Once I got to 80 trips to Anchorage, I decided I wasn’t counting anymore,” Lisa said. “I was not liking it.
“We’d leave at 9 and be home by midnight or 1. The next day, he’d be out of school and we’d be up there again.”
Lisa said she owes friends in Anchorage and Grant Aviation a ton of thanks for giving her driving time off here and there.
In Zack’s mind, the reason for all the travel was clear. He wanted to be a Kenai River Brown Bear, the North American Hockey League team that started play in Soldotna in 2007.
“The Kenai River Brown Bears — that was his team,” Lisa said. “He wanted to be a part of it since he was a little kid the year the Brown Bears started.
“The kids that made the team locally were his heroes. That’s what he tried to build his world around.”
At 16, Zulkanycz was affiliated by the team. He never played in a Brown Bears game while in high school, but he practiced with the team and helped out in the locker room.
No task was too tough or boring for him.
“If something needed to be done, I made sure it got done,” he said. “It was just great to be a part of it, really.”
Oliver David was the Brown Bears head coach at the time, and in an odd twist of fate he is an assistant with the Saints now.
To hear Zulkanycz tell it, to say David was not that appreciative of Zulkanycz’s efforts is an understatement.
“He used to rip on me all the time,” Zulkanycz said. “At one point, I used to be a lot chubbier. He’d make fun of me as this little fat kid who thinks he’s going to play junior hockey.
“It pissed me off. I was going to prove this guy wrong.”
David and Zulkanycz maintain a friendly relationship to this day. David said he doesn’t remember saying those things to Zulkanycz, but adds there’s no denying what Zulkanycz got out of those conversations.
“What I think I would have been doing with a player like him is getting him in the right frame of mind,” David said. “Being from the Peninsula, he may not have known how to line up his dreams and put in the type of work it takes for a small-town kid to make it in this game.”
After a high-scoring career at Kenai Central, Zulkanycz did prove David wrong when he made the Brown Bears his first year out of high school.
Zulkanycz said he learned a valuable lesson early that season when David told him each player has a role, and for many players that role isn’t concentrating on scoring goals.
“That first year, I decided I was going to be an energy forward, a power forward that gets in there and bangs bodies and goes hard to the net,” Zulkanycz said. “It’s what (general manager) Nate Kiel called the Brown Bears identity — tough and in your face, no one wants to play against you.”
In the 2012-13 season, Zulkanycz scored six goals, had 13 assists and was a minus-4 in 51 games.
After that season, David left to become an assistant in Dubuque, and Geoff Beauparlant became coach of the Brown Bears.
Beauparlant had actually coached against Zulkanycz in his Midget days in Anchorage and quickly came to appreciate the unique energy the local product brought to the team.
“He brings a special energy and a willingness to compete every single shift that is unparalleled in junior hockey,” Beauparlant said.
At first, Beauparlant thought Zulkanycz might bring too much energy.
“I was taken aback with how much energy he brought to the bench and I actually talked with him about toning it down,” Beauparlant said. “As the season progressed, I realized that’s who Zack is.
“It’s important that you remain true to yourself and that endears him to coaching staffs quickly.”
David also said Zulkanycz’s energy stands out, and it is that energy that has allowed him to make leaps in his playing ability each season.
“He has a passion. I know it sounds cliche, but he has a passion,” David said. “He knows what he’s feeling. He knows what he’s after. He loves to play hockey.
“He loves everything surrounding hockey. He loves the locker room, he loves watching hockey and he loves talking hockey. He is in love with hockey.”
Beauparlant said Zulkanycz is a good role model for local players.
“I think it gives the local youth players the opportunity to see that if you put your time in and work hard, you can become a Brown Bear and move on to higher levels,” the coach said.
Beauparlant also tried to get Zulkanycz to be more of an offensive player, and he improved to seven goals, 16 assists and a plus-12 in 51 games.
“Geoff wanted me to take more of an offensive role, a top-six forward role,” Zulkanycz said. “Obviously, that’s not a role I’ve played, but I produced more offense. A blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, right?”
That improved offensive ability, which also came from shooting a lot of pucks with Vince Redford at the Kenai Multipurpose Facility in the summer, came in handy when Zulkanycz was invited to the Saints main camp this summer.
Even though David used to coach Zulkanycz, he said he doesn’t make personnel decisions as a Saints assistant. He said his only role was to give Zulkanycz a chance.
USHL teams are only allowed to keep four 20-year-olds, so as a 20-year-old Zulkanycz faced steeper odds than many of the 150 in camp.
But David did say Zulkanycz is the type of player the Saints made several attempts at developing last season, but failed.
“He executed in camp and did the little things,” David said. “He got pucks deep, he stopped at the net, he didn’t turn the puck over, he didn’t overhandle the puck, he supported his teammates, backchecked, blocked shots and was vocal on the bench.
“The guys rallied around him.”
Zulkanycz was invited to training camp, where he would eventually survive cuts from 31 players all the way down to 23.
“When I got the invite to main camp, I thought, ‘I’m 20 years old playing against a bunch of little kids.’
“All these kids are 16, 17, 18, 19 years old. I’ve been doing this for three years. It’s a mindset thing.”
When he came home from main camp, Zulkanycz worked out four days a week, plus was at the rink nearly every day, to get ready for training camp.
“Coach (Matt) Shaw told me he really liked the way I played, but knows there is more in me,” Zulkanycz said. “He told me to go home this summer and come back more of an animal.”
Now that he has the team made, Zulkanycz is not going to get complacent thinking he has a permanent spot on the team, or a Division I scholarship, wrapped up.
“I’m going to take it one day at a time,” he said. “I have to get better each day because if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.
“Sixty games plus practice is not easy on the body. I have to stay healthy and stay in good shape.”
David said players that stick with the Saints get Division I scholarships. He said the team typically gets 20 NHL and college scouts at each game.
“It’s fairly logical,” David said. “If you are playing in the USHL for a season, you’re playing against potential first-round draft picks and players that have been already drafted.
“In the entire league, every single team has 12 to 18 players already committed to college. If you are playing in the USHL, there’s no guesswork about if your game will translate to the speed of the next level.”
In addition to coaching Zulkanycz, David said he will keep pulling for him due to their history together.
“He’s the story you hope for, for every kid,” David said. “He’s what junior hockey is. Zack Zulkanycz is the junior hockey story.
“It’s why you do it after high school instead of going straight to college.”