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February 22, 2010
Say hello to Zach Parise, the best player in the NHL you don't know. Remember his name, because he may write another golden chapter in the history of U.S. hockey.
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February 22, 2010

The Great Unknown

Say hello to Zach Parise, the best player in the NHL you don't know. Remember his name, because he may write another golden chapter in the history of U.S. hockey.

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At mile marker 112.6, near Exit 16E, a hockey player looms over the mighty ribbon of the New Jersey Turnpike. You can't miss him, even at 55 mph. "Score with reading," Zach Parise, identified as NJ Library Champion, says on the billboard. Even if no one speaks like that, it is worthwhile counsel for Garden State school kids, although the guess is Parise, decked out in his Devils red-and-black number 9, removes his helmet before cracking a copy of The Great Gatsby between shifts.

To review:

Sidney Crosby promotes Reebok (where he has his own line of clothing), Gatorade, the Tim Hortons chain of coffee and doughnut shops and also stars in NHL television commercials.

Alexander Ovechkin endorses CCM (where he has his own line of clothing) and a video game for 2K Sports, sang in a hilarious commercial for a Washington, D.C., area car dealership and is prominent in league commercials too.

And counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, Parise does a PSA for the state library system.

This hardly seems fair. Crosby has the Stanley Cup, and Ovechkin has the Hart Trophy, while Parise—"the best American forward, for sure," Olympic coach Ron Wilson says—has the Dewey decimal system. Even Parise's breakout 45 goals last season and 28 goals and 61 points through the Devils' first 61 games this season have not raised his profile, except maybe with commuters. Parise is still surprised, and not displeased, when someone recognizes him. "Kind of surreal," he says. "Pretty cool."

So the face above the traffic is the best hockey player most of you don't know, at least until the puck drops at 7:40 p.m. ET on Sunday in Vancouver. The Olympics. Team USA versus Team Canada, in the penultimate game of the first round. Thirty years after the Miracle on Ice you might want to consider skimming the background of a player so gritty and gifted that by the end of the Games, he may write a new chapter in the history of American hockey.

The story of the son actually begins 12 years before he was born, in a Moscow arena half a world away, when his father, reputedly among the most reasonable of men and workmanlike of left wings, brandished his stick and swung it like a rail-splitter in the direction of referee Josef Kompalla. The ref was from West Germany, although there was no doubt in the minds of Canadians watching the 1972 Summit Series that Clueless Joe was bucking for a Hero of Socialist Labor award. Two matches earlier Kompalla had whistled 31 minutes in penalties on Canada while calling just two minors against the Soviet Union. His head might have been as lopsided as those numbers had J.P. Parise followed his impulse and poleaxed the ref after being called for interference, the third dubious penalty against Team Canada in the first 250 seconds of the conclusive Game 8.

"If I had followed through," says J.P., "I might still be in Siberia."

He would play 890 games for five NHL teams. He would score 238 goals. During his 12 full seasons in the league, only three teams—Montreal, Boston and Philadelphia—won the Stanley Cup. See, the Summit Series and international hockey were his Stanley Cups. Even more than his lightning overtime goal for the country-mouse New York Islanders that eliminated the city-mouse Rangers in the first round of the 1975 playoffs, his career is remembered for a checked swing.

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