Zac Jones’ unorthodox journey over roadblocks, out of Virginia
From the Little Rink to Mullins Center, Zac Jones beat the odds
October 8, 2019
It’s early June 2007 and Ottawa is buzzing on a Saturday night, as the Senators get set to host their first Stanley Cup Final game in franchise history.
Facing a 2-0 deficit to the Anaheim Ducks, they’re in desperate need of a win at home to claw back into the series. With their team’s back up against the wall, fans pack into Scotiabank Place like sardines.
Among the 20,500 in attendance are seven-year-old Zac Jones and his father, Rob, who drove over 600 miles to get to the Canadian capital from just outside of Richmond, Virginia for the pivotal Game 3.
As a result of his 20-year career in the world of hockey, Rob has made connections all over the place. One of them is with the Senator’s equipment manager, who says he can get them into the locker room before the game. When the father-son duo gets behind the scenes, they happen upon Ottawa’s star 25-year-old forward, none other than the rock star himself, Dany Heatley.
Coming off his second 50-goal season in as many years, Heatley greets the youngster with open arms, shows him around the facilities and gives him some bubble gum. He even asks for his input.
“I haven’t scored all series, Jonesy,” he says, holding out two options. “Give me a stick to score with.”
Captivated by the face of his favorite NHLer growing up, Jones doesn’t think to look for another figure in the room, then-Ottawa assistant coach and now-Massachusetts head coach, Greg Carvel.
Fast forward 12 years, and Carvel and Jones are in the same locker room again. Except this time, it’s not in Ottawa — it’s in Amherst, and they’re certainly aware of each other’s presence now.
But somehow that full-circle moment isn’t the craziest part about how Zac Jones ended up at UMass. What’s truly remarkable is that the kid from Virginia even got to college hockey at all.
Because Rob was an equipment manager with the Richmond Renegades for 10 years during his childhood in Glen Allen, hockey has been a part of Jones’ life for as long as he can remember.
At two-and-a-half, he was signed up for skating lessons, and he’s been enthralled with all aspects of the game ever since. At three, he was playing organized games with the mites. At four, he wasn’t playing video games like other kids — he would just sit in front of the TV watching hockey games.
The only problem was he was growing up in an area where hockey isn’t the norm, to say the least. It’s not like baseball, basketball or other sports where you can ride your bike to the park and pull together a pickup game. For hockey you need ice, and there certainly isn’t much of it in Virginia.
Even when Jones and a few of friends who were interested could get on the ice at a local rink, it was only for an hour or two, just a couple of times a week. So, his dad came up with an idea.
With the help of eight other dads raising hockey-playing kids in the area, he went out in search of a spot to build a homemade rink for them to skate and have fun whenever they wanted.
“We just said, ‘we need more ice,’” he said. “So, we got together and decided OK, let’s do it. Let’s try it.”
After finding a warehouse with the cheapest rent, his idea came to life.
With the help of one of the other dads working on the project, they found a pile of used boards and an old Zamboni, just enough to slap together the makeshift rink. When all was said and done, they had built a 110-by-50-foot surface — essentially from the red line in on a regular rink, but narrower — with one mid-line and goals at each end. They called it: The Little Rink.
The dads took turns with the Zamboni to clean the ice, and the kids loved it. For the next five years, you’d be hard-pressed to find Jones anywhere else. When he wasn’t there, he couldn’t wait to get back.
In class, he’d glance at the clock in 10-minute intervals thinking, “Is it time yet? Is it time yet?” When the time finally did arrive, he’d hop in his mom Kara’s car and take the 20-minute trip to the warehouse.
Like clockwork, Jones was back at the Little Rink, ready for another afternoon of endless 3-on-3 tilts.
“There’s only so many hockey players in Richmond,” he said, “everybody knows everybody, so just to be able to go there every day after school and skate for free and do whatever, it was really awesome.”
On the small surface, he was forced to work on his hands and puck protection skills. He was always undersized compared to most of the kids his age, so he quickly learned to make quick shifts to avoid big hits.
“The game is played in such small spaces,” Rob said. “I mean, how often do you see somebody skate up and down the ice with the puck? Never. It’s four or five passes. So, that’s what the Little Rink did. It made you think the game the way it’s supposed to be played. You have to be good on your edges to turn and get out of the way of things and still control the puck, so it really helped him with that.”
While most around him were in the mid-five-foot range at 11-years-old, Zac was only 4-foot-10. But he didn’t let it bother him. What he lacked in size he made up for in work ethic, putting endless hours into his craft.
That’s when Rob realized his son might be able to make something out of his budding hockey abilities.
“He pretty much kept up with those kids all through the time there and excelled at it too, and he was always doing extra work,” he said. “We had a shooting thing in our backyard, and he was always out there. He’d shoot five, six buckets of pucks a day. He definitely wanted it. He really did.”
After five years of development on his own and with the Richmond Generals, Jones moved up to Connecticut to play his high school years at the perennially-competitive prep school, South Kent.
At the age of 14, he picked up his things and moved away from home for the first time in his life.
Playing with the Selects Hockey Academy 16U team, he got off to an impressive start in his first two seasons, but size remained an issue and both years he was overlooked in the United States Hockey League Draft.
“I knew at some point I’d finally hit that growth spurt and be the same size as all of the other guys,” he said. “I didn’t worry about it at all. My parents worried about it more than me, that’s for sure.”
At 16, he finally hit the growth spurt he’d been anticipating and before long, colleges took notice. That’s when UMass’ recruiting staff of Carvel, Barr and Jared DeMichiel came into the picture.
After DeMichiel heard about him, Barr had to go see for himself. So, he paid a visit to South Kent.
“We thought he was an elite puck-mover, an offensive-minded kind of player,” Carvel said. “When I first saw him — Ben asked me to come out and he goes, ‘this kid’s really good but nobody’s on him, will you go look at him?’ I went to see him and I said, ‘yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ He’s a great, great kid. Got a nice relationship with his family. He’s excited to be here and we’re probably more excited to have him here.”
“I trusted coach Carvel, D-Mike and Barr,” Jones said of why he chose UMass over the other colleges that had been recruiting him, like Union. “They were the first three coaches that came up to me in my process and right from the start I had a connection with them. I trusted them, I knew they had my back, knew they had my best interests in mind, so I knew if I came and I was drafted or if I came and I wasn’t, it didn’t matter. I was going to be able to come here and play a big role on this team.”
With a college commitment under his belt at the end of summer, it was time to get back to work.
Alongside the uptick in size, Jones’ third season with Selects was a season of growth in more areas than just height. It was a coming-out party for the Virginia native, brought on by his coach, Matt Plante.
“I give him a lot of credit for his development,” Rob said. “He really made Zac what he is now. He put a lot on his shoulders, made sure he played the game the right way. It really did work out for him.”
As a captain with the 18U team, Jones exploded from the get-go, racking up 45 points in 54 games.
“I knew somebody was going to give me a chance at some point if I just kept playing my game, sticking to the process,” he said. “Planter, he’s a great coach, one of my favorite coaches I’ve had in my whole life, and I’ve had my dad as my coach too so that’s big praise for him. He pretty much just drove me to get better no matter what.”
After three years with Selects and coach Plante, he was finally ready for the USHL.
After being skipped over for two years, Jones was selected in the first round by the Tri-City Storm. It turns out shipping him out to Nebraska was a move that was in the works for quite some time.
In the hockey world, everybody seems to know everybody. Here, Plante was good friends with Storm coach Anthony Noreen, to whom he had been praising Zac for the better part of two years.
“He basically just kept telling me this kid’s going to be your first-round pick,” Noreen said. “You’re going to love him. He’s your type of kid, your type of player and he just thought the world of him.”
When Jones arrived in Kearney, it didn’t take long for his new coach to understand the hype.
“The skating, the hockey sense and the play-making ability,” he said of what made him stick out off the bat. “When we got him, and I think it’s the same for everyone who’s ever coached him, are there some things he needs to work on? Yes. But the things that he has that you can’t teach are elite.”
For 56 games he was an absolute firecracker, lighting it up with 52 points on 45 assists, surpassing Torey Krug’s 2008 league record for most points by a rookie defenseman. For an offensive-minded blueliner trying to emulate the likes of No. 47 in Boston, he was certainly off to a good start.
When all was said and done, Jones was tabbed the USHL’s Rookie of the Year and the Storm won their second regular-season title in franchise history. It wasn’t just offensive prowess that led him to the award, though. It was his excellence in both ends.
“You look at a lot of offensive defensemen and you think maybe they’re a defensive liability – Zac’s the furthest thing from it,” Noreen said. “What he did last year, he did that against other team’s top lines every single night. As a rookie in this league, that’s not something a lot of guys are able to do, let alone do it and score 52 points. It was as impressive, probably the most impressive rookie season I’ve seen during my time in the USHL.”
Under the direction of Noreen and associate coach Ethan Goldberg, Jones’ confidence grew tremendously. Taking online classes, he put all his focus into hockey, spending six hours a day at the rink.
“That was such a big key for me last year,” he said. “I knew with Noreen and Goldberg and all those guys, if I just played my game and made mistakes, they wouldn’t yell at me, they would just teach me.”
“However far he makes it in the game, he’s going to max out his potential,” Noreen said. “He works at it to a level where whatever his maximum is, whatever his best game is or whatever the furthest he’s possibly going to make it in this game with his ability, he’ll make it there. His drive is just elite.”
Even his dad had to remind him to get away from the ice every once in a while.
“Dude, you don’t need to be there every day at the rink,” Rob said with a laugh. “Go do something!
“He’s a rink rat. That’s what I told Ben Barr; he’s a true rink rat. He’ll be there all the time. I told him, I said, ‘dude, the trainers and the equipment guy, [Josh] Penn, don’t drive ‘em nuts, man. Don’t be there too early. They like their alone time. They don’t want to see you all the time. I’ve been there.”
Before heading to UMass following his stint with Tri-City, Jones had to take care of a few things first. Just small stuff, like being selected 68th overall by the New York Rangers in the third round of the NHL Draft in Vancouver. And just as it has been his whole life, his family was there in support.
“It was awesome,” Jones said. “That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to the draft and I wasn’t even sure if I was going to go, but when I made the decision to go it was the best choice I ever made.”
It was his friend and former teammate, Patrick Giles, a sophomore at Boston College, who pushed him to make the choice to attend. Giles had been to the draft two years earlier and went undrafted.
“Listen, it sucks to sit there all day and not get drafted,” Giles told Jones, “but if you do get drafted just imagine the experience you’ll have.”
Unable to pass up the opportunity, the Jones’ were off to British Columbia.
When they arrived and heard his name called by New York, it was a full circle, “holy-cow” moment for his dad especially, who grew up in New York and worked with the Rangers in the early 1990s. With the selection, Jones became the first Richmond area native ever taken in the NHL Draft.
“It just shows kids back home you don’t have to be from big states like Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota,” he said. “You can play whatever sport you want, as long as you work hard you can make it anywhere.”
It helps to have the kind of family support system he has had, he added, something he’s extremely grateful for.
With the help of the sacrifices made by his parents – who have owned and operated Sportspage Bar and Grille since the Renegades folded in 2003 – he was validated as a hockey player from the south.
“I can’t thank them enough,” Jones said, donning a UMass sweater last week. “My mom driving me to the Little Rink every day after school it seemed and my dad traveling 10 hours with me on weekends, missing my [siblings’] practices. I can’t thank them enough for what they did for me.”
“It’s funny because my wife’s parents and my parents both thought we were crazy for all the stuff we did with him,” Rob said. “Obviously down here in Virginia you couldn’t get good hockey, so we had to go to Michigan, Boston, Detroit, Toronto, Chicago. They always thought we were nuts. Now that this all happened they kind of say ‘OK, I see what you guys are doing.’ It was definitely worth it.”
After a whirlwind of a summer that saw Jones travel all across the country, he made one final stop in Plymouth, Michigan to participate in USA Hockey’s World Junior Summer Showcase, where he and 15 other of the best under-20 defensemen in the nation showed off their game in hopes of earning a spot on Team USA for the World Junior Championships in late December, early January.
Filip Lindberg won gold at the tournament with Finland last year and Cale Makar won it with Canada the year before. Jones won’t find out if he made the final roster until the end of the second half, but for now, he has work to do.
After months of anticipation, he’s finally in Amherst, joining a team off its best season to date.
With high-powered defensemen Makar and Mario Ferraro moving on to the NHL in the offseason following the loss to Minnesota-Duluth last April, Jones is joining a UMass back end in transition.
Alongside sophomores Marc Del Gaizo and Ty Farmer, who are coming off impressive stints as freshmen, there’s a lot of hype surrounding him and the near-impossible task of replacing the likes of Ferraro and Makar. But again, he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Cale and Mario, that’s two pretty hard players to replace,” Jones said. “Two of the best players in college hockey last year. I’m just going to come in, play my game and not really think about it too much.”
That’s not to say he won’t have a big impact early, however, as Carvel has predicted in recent weeks. Jones will look to make an impact out of the gate on the UMass power play, which was the best in college hockey last year, quarterbacked by Makar.
Although no one will truly be able to mirror what No. 16 did for that unit for two seasons, Jones is the next best bet.
“There’s a lot to like about Zac,” Carvel said. “He’s an extremely smart, gifted player. Of that class thus far, he’s the one that’s jumped out. He’ll be an important player from day one. He’s a real nice replacement for Makar on the first [power-play] unit and I think he’ll help us be very effective again.”
“His strength as a player is he’s very poised with the puck,” he added, “as poised as any player I’ve seen in a long time. He’s as cool as a cucumber, he can wait guys out, all the euphemisms you want to say, he’s got ice in his veins and all that stuff, he’s the poster boy for it, so I’m excited. We knew we were going to lose Cale and we knew he was coming in, so we didn’t think it would be that much of a drop-off. I think he’s going to be a very good player but in a different way than Cale was. Cale would overpower you and kill you with his speed, Zac kills you with his brain and his puck skills.”
Expectations are high for No. 24 on his own and they’re through the roof for UMass as a whole.
“Obviously they had a great year last year, a great run,” Jones said, “but we know we’re coming into this season hot. We’re thinking, ‘you know what? They did it last year, why can’t we do it again this year?’”
There have always been obstacles in his career, but each time Zac Jones manages to battle through. Nine days away from his 19th birthday, he hasn’t backed down from any along the way yet, and he’s not about to start.
With big shoes to fill at UMass, he’s facing a new challenge, but if all goes to plan, he’ll be just fine.
The kid from Virginia has always found a way to succeed somehow, and he’s ready to make it happen again.
Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.