He is the son of an NHL player and coach, and if you listen closely, that’s unmistakable in almost everything he says and does at the rink.
For all his boyish good looks, Zach Parise has the mind of a hockey lifer, at only 27, and it’s that IQ his coach wanted to tap over the off-season in setting out a new identity for the New Jersey Devils.
“I had conversations with Zach and some of the other players over the summer, and they really felt that we could put a little more pressure on other teams,” Peter DeBoer said on an off day on Thursday, a day after his team had tied their Eastern Conference final.
“They felt a lot of times they were playing three against five last season rather than having a five-man fore-check and five men involved in the offensive zone. That’s basically how it evolved.”
Less than a year later, the Devils pursue their opposition – in this case, the New York Rangers – with a fiery passion, something their first-year captain brings in large supply.
His father, Jean-Paul, was of a similar ilk – a small and skilled forward from Smooth Rock Falls, Ont., who was renowned for his determination and work in the corners, just as his son’s ability there has served New Jersey so well in these playoffs.
Parise’s old man, who played nearly 900 NHL games and was a checking specialist on Canada’s Summit Series team in 1972, is right there in his hockey DNA.
He also passed on recently what he knew of playing this deep in the postseason with the Minnesota North Stars and New York Islanders.
“He made it to the conference final once or twice, and he just said how excited he was,” Parise said. “He said he thought we had a good chance with only four teams left.”
Parise was born into a world that was all about hockey, with his French Canadian father in the midst of a nearly decade-long stint as an assistant coach in Minnesota and an older brother whom he followed into the game.
The youngster grew up a rink rat – fitting, given he later became an Albany River Rat in the Devils’ minor-league system – and learned from the beginning the kind of insight he is now offering in marathon media sessions after every playoff game.
Take the aftermath of Wednesday’s 3-2 win. Parise didn’t hit the scoresheet, but he brought energy and drew the Rangers’ top checkers from the drop of the puck.
Afterward, he pointed out that one way the Devils had beaten the Philadelphia Flyers was exploiting their lack of right-handed defencemen.
What holes he and the coaching staff have identified in New York’s game, Parise wasn’t saying, but it’s safe to say they’re playing a role.
“You focus more in the playoffs on your opponent than you do in the regular season,” Parise explained. “You try to exploit things differently. Sometimes one fore-check works against one team and not against another.”
Many players in the NHL –especially those under 30 – don’t necessarily think the game on this level. There’s a saying in the league that “players play and coaches coach,” but when it comes to the playoffs, it’s helpful to have everyone reading from the same page.
Parise is the type to have memorized the manual.
It also hardly hurts that he is also the hardest working member on the team, something coaches usually see well down their depth charts.
“You’ve got guys like that that play on your fourth line on every team,” DeBoer said. “They’re there because of their relentless work ethic. What separates him is he’s got world-class skill and world-class hockey sense on top of that. That’s the special combination.”
It’s a pretty rare one, and it’s what Devils GM Lou Lamoriello saw when he traded up to 17th in the 2003 draft to take the smallish kid putting up a pile of points at the University of North Dakota.
Where others saw only his size and limitations, New Jersey glimpsed the potential of a player with that developed a hockey mind.
Four years after that pick, Parise had his first 30-goal season at only 22. Two years after that, he was fifth in NHL scoring with 94 points.
In 2010, he was named to the all-star team at the Olympics after leading Team USA to a silver medal with eight points in six games on hockey’s biggest stage.
Despite his youth, he was an alternate captain.
It’s an impressive list of accomplishments, but it still lacks a Stanley Cup, something his father never got his hands on despite 86 playoff games.
J.P., now 70, has been attending games and knows how close his son is to finally putting their name on the trophy.
“He kept saying, ‘You guys have a great chance to do it,’” Zach said.