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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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"I must have a guardian angel, because '72 was the year great players like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, [John] McKenzie, [Derek] Sanderson jumped to the WHA and weren't allowed to play in the Summit Series," says Parise, now general manager of the Des Moines Buccaneers in the USHL, an American junior league. "So I was really lucky to represent my country. I always told Zach that after a series, standing on the blue line, hearing your national anthem ... there's nothing more exciting, more captivating than that. And then in Slovakia in 2002, when he scored the winning goal with 58 seconds left [in the world under-18 tournament], he was standing on the blue line and freely sobbing. I was with my wife in the stands. I turned to her and said, 'See?'"

Zach's national anthem is, of course, different than his father's. Zach was born and raised in Minnesota, seasoned at the University of North Dakota and drafted in 2003 by New Jersey, a team with seven players from the States. Of course playing for the Devils provides Stanley Cup opportunities his father never had—New Jersey, second in the Eastern Conference at the Olympic break, has won three since 1995 and has missed the playoffs only once in the past 19 years—but it also is the hockey equivalent of entering the witness-protection program.

Even the rare Devil with name recognition, goalie Martin Brodeur, the NHL career leader in wins, shutouts and games, suggests Parise needs a grander canvas for his art to be truly appreciated. "I went through that my whole career—[people saying] is it him or is he a product of the system?—until I played for Team Canada and got out of it," said Brodeur, starter for the Olympic gold-medal-winners in 2002. "It's all about how you perform when you go outside this bubble we have here and into the real world. For Zach, the Olympics could be his coming-out. No doubt it will be."

In addition to Slovakia, Parise occupied the international stage in Helsinki in 2004, when he captained the U.S. to its first world junior championship, and in Vienna, Moscow and Halifax, Nova Scotia, in '05, '07 and '08, at the world championships. But those tournaments were mere hillocks on the vast sporting landscape. The five-ringed circus that begs for America's up-close-and-personal attention every four years—that's something different. "This is when the country tunes in," Parise says. "It's important for the U.S. to have a good showing [in Vancouver], to get the excitement back for hockey."

Goalie Jack McCartan became a sensation 50 years ago for backstopping Team USA's gold medal in Squaw Valley; he later would play 12 NHL games, winning two. Mike Eruzione has been dining out on Lake Placid for three decades, although he never played in the NHL (but did pot 30 for the IHL's Toledo Goaldiggers in 1977--78).

Enter Parise, a hero in the making. "Since the first practice we had this year," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire says, "I can't expect a player to be better than this." Twenty-one of Parise's 28 goals have come at even strength, tied for seventh in the NHL. He is so responsible without the puck that between Nov. 4 and Dec. 2 he was not on the ice for an opposing goal, a remarkable streak for a player who averages nearly 20 minutes. (He's +24 for the season.) Although American fans instinctively gravitate to the goaltender—presumptive starter Ryan Miller has been the NHL's best in the first half of the season—Team USA belongs to Parise. If this quick, small but determined group claws its way to a medal, the fulcrum will be the first-line left wing with a face on loan from a Giotto cherub.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press in November, Steve Yzerman, Hall of Fame Red Wings captain and general manager of Canada's Olympic team, was asked who would he want to be if he could come back as a current player. Yzerman chose Parise. "I really got a good look at him at the worlds in Moscow [in 2007]," Yzerman said in December, before scouting a Lightning-Devils game. "Love the way he plays. Just a great, nifty player. And he works his butt off."

Parise spent his life looking up to players like Yzerman. Who knew Yzerman would one day be looking up to him?

Or down. Parise is listed at 5'11" and answers to 5'10". ("Definitely 190," he says. "I'll step on the scale right now if you want.") If he ever decides on dual citizenship like J.P., who became an American citizen in 1988, Zach should shun Canada in favor of Lilliput. "I remember Zach was always around the rink in Minnesota," says Tampa Bay G.M. Brian Lawton, who played for the North Stars when J.P. was an assistant coach in the 1980s. "Then all the way through Shattuck"—Parise attended Shattuck--St. Mary's School, the prep hockey factory in Faribault, Minn.—"I'd see him and talk to him. Honestly, I thought he was a really good player but probably too small for the NHL."

But Parise had a plan. When he was 14 or 15, Lawton recalls, Parise's father told him that Zach would go to bed at nine o'clock "because that's what hockey players did. I thought J.P. was kidding."

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