“We’re very proud of them. People cannot understand that we have four boys that were so active and who kept us so busy, but they were a joy.”
The boys also enjoyed it.
“It was always on the go whether it was summertime or wintertime,” Darcy said from Albany, N.Y. “But it kept us all healthy and active, and we always had something to do.
“But it wasn’t easy for my parents. I’m sure it was a struggle for them.”
Even so, they are now relishing the fruits of their labours.
“It was tons of sacrifice, but we’re pretty proud of how they’ve been so successful,” said Tom Zajac, who coached each one of his boys. “We don’t boast about them. We’re pretty humble people but yeah, it’s been a joy to watch them.”
Tom also went to Denver on a hockey scholarship and earned a business administration degree. Then, he returned home, got a job and started a family.
“Having been involved in hockey throughout my lifetime, I just passed it on to the boys,” said Tom, a Co-op gas station manager who also conducts a hockey skills camp. “One of the things was that there’s not much to do here in wintertime.
“I enjoyed the game and when Travis, our oldest, started going to the rink, he enjoyed it and the other boys just followed. But Winnipeg is hockey country, so it is pretty easy to drive them that way. I’m not going to say that I pushed them, but I wanted them to do something that was enjoyable for them.”
The boys recall those outdoor games vividly.
“We’d go to the rink and fights would break out because we’re all so competitive,” Darcy said.
“There were a lot of battles and a lot of fighting,” Kelly said from Albany. “We’d be on the outdoor rinks from morning till night, then play in the basement.
“But Dad was the backbone of our success. He pushed us to have fun and to work hard.”
Tom also pushed his boys towards college hockey scholarships.
“We’ve always thought that education is important,” he said. “The direction I guess I pushed the guys was that I said, ‘This is what’s available if you want to work towards it and get yourself an education, which is needed nowadays, and you get to do something that you like while you’re doing it.’”
“We want to get the schooling because you never know what’s going to happen with hockey,” he said from Omaha, Neb. “It’s what Travis did and we’re all following in his footsteps.”
The Zajacs make the 10-hour drive to see Nolan play in Omaha about once a month and fly out East to see the other three play whenever possible.
Meanwhile, Manitoba’s first family of hockey has sometimes been compared to the Sutter hockey family of Alberta, and the Staal family of Thunder Bay.
“It’s pretty good to be compared to them,” Tom said. “I’m not sure we’re quite as close to them as people say we are. But we’re happy that our kids have been successful in what they have chosen to do.”
MVP of this family? The hockey mom
When her four hockey-playing sons still lived at home, Trish Zajac was making meals morning, day and night.
“Cooking meals for four boys, you’re never out of the kitchen,” she said. “So, if you get a five-minute break, you’re doing good. You’re constantly going but you want to help them. You want them to be successful and get straight and not go hungry.”
When they are at home, she goes through four litres of both white and chocolate milk a day, and their fridge in the garage is stocked with non-alcoholic drinks that they are always guzzling.
“I don’t know how she did it,” said Nolan, the youngest son. “And she was always climbing over hockey equipment around the house, too.”
Whenever they come home for the summer, Trish starts all over again.
“I still hear about that,” Darcy said. “She’s still cooking and cleaning all day for us, even though she doesn’t really have to.”
Kelly is looking forward to it this summer.
“She wants to cook for me so I can put on some weight because I need to add a few pounds,” he said. “But I think she enjoys it. She’s a hockey mom.”
Like most hockey moms, Trish also drove her boys to those early-morning practices held before the break of day in the dead of winter.
And yes, those grocery bills could be scary.
But not as scary as seeing your son suffer an injury.
“I hate when they get hurt,” she said.
Travis suffered a freak injury (torn achilles heal) while training last summer, which kept him out of the New Jersey lineup for quite some time. But he has since returned.
Travis, by the way, has provided his parents with their biggest thrills to date.
“Watching his first NHL game knowing how hard he worked to get there,” Tom said. “Watching him finally succeeding and playing that first game was the biggest highlight.”
Watching her oldest son get drafted in the first round was the highlight for Trish.
“I wasn’t at the draft because Darcy was graduating at the same time,” Trish said. “But Tom was there and it was so exciting to see them on TV and just waiting there. It was just a wonderful moment.”
There should be many more wonderful moments to come for the proud parents.
The four stars
Kelly Zajac: A 23-year-old, 5-foot-10, 175-pound forward who played for Union College on a hockey scholarship, scoring eight goals and 42 points in 41 games. Recently signed a three-game tryout with AHL’s Albany Devils, where he played on the same team as his brother, Darcy, for the first time.
Nolan Zajac:19-year-old, 5-foot-10, 181-pound defenceman with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL (junior). He scored a total of 11 goals and 39 points in 60 games that includes games with Cedar Rapids before he got traded. He recently accepted a hockey scholarship with Denver for next year.
Travis Zajac: A 26-year-old, 6-foot-3, 200-pound forward with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Drafted in the first round (20th overall) of the 2004 draft. Scored two goals and six points in an injury-plagued year this season. Had U.S. hockey scholarship at UND.
Darcy Zajac: A 25-year-old, 6-foot-1, 201-pound forward with the AHL’s Albany Devils. Scored eight goals and 24 points in 66 games this season. Had U.S. hockey scholarship with UND.