For some New Jersey Devils fans, yesterday marked the end of an era. Longtime forward and fan favorite Travis Zajac signed a one-day contract to retire from the NHL as a Devil. He played 15 seasons with the club, and celebrated his 1,000th game on Feb. 21, 2021 against the Washington Capitals. For many he was a staple in the organization, and was always described a class act, both on and off the ice.
Yesterday afternoon Zajac, along with general manager Tom Fitzgerald and co-managing partner David Blitzer, met with the media to celebrate his career in New Jersey, and discuss what’s next for the 36-year-old.
“It’s bittersweet, a lot of emotions today,” Zajac said during his retirement press conference. “I think to be able to play this game for 15 years at the highest level in the New Jersey Devils jersey, I look back and it was so special. It’s tough to sit here and talk about it. I’m just grateful for all the memories that I have.”
Born in Winnipeg, Made in New Jersey
The Winnipeg native was selected 20th overall by the Devils in the 2004 draft. 2006-07 marked his first full season with the team, when he appeared in 80 games, and ultimately finished with 42 points. He was a member of the well-known ZZ Pop line along with Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner, and he finished his rookie campaign by finishing 10th in rookie voting for the Calder Trophy.
His importance to the organization became more apparent each season he took the ice. As he reflected on his career, he was sure to note his fondest moment, which was the Devils’ Stanley Cup run in 2012. On their quest to the final, Zajac scored the overtime game-winning goal against the Florida Panthers to force Game 7 in the first round.
“My fondest memory was definitely the Stanley Cup run,” Zajac said. “I missed most of the season with injury, and coming back and being part of a team that made it to the Stanley Cup Final; I have a lot of friends from that team, and we still keep in touch. That’s a run that I will never forget.”
A Milestone Moment
Zajac is a player who encompassed what it truly means to be a Devils throughout his entire career, and he joins Patrik Elias and Nicklas Lidstrom as a player who reached 1,000 games with one organization. At the time of his celebration, Zajac, along with Alex Ovechkin, were the only two members of the 2004 draft to achieve this milestone.
“Playing 1,000 games with the Devils, when I look back that means more to me than any other stat that I have,” he said. “Just knowing that this organization believed in me from the start and gave me the opportunity to play for them for 15 years, to play 1000 games, that’s one thing I will never forget.”
The window was open for Zajac to return to the ice for another season, and Fitzgerald, along with New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello, reached out to him about playing another season. The 6-foot-3 forward played 13 games for the Islanders last season after a trade from the Devils, but when the discussions happened, Zajac already made the decision to hang up his skates and step away from the game — at least as a player.
“At this age it gets harder and harder to stay at the top and be successful and competitive,” Zajac said. “After taking time off I really didn’t have that desire to train and push myself. I ran out of a little gas, and being around the family a lot more was starting to have a big impact on my life.
“Being home for dinners, around the kids sports, and around at school, that was a lot of fun to me and I really love being part of that. The sacrifices you have to make to continue to play, I didn’t have that internal push to keep going.”
Zajac emphasized he is at peace with his decision, and is excited to spend more time with his family. The drive that he has felt for the past 15 seasons was missing this summer, and he knew it was time. The good news for Devils fans is that he will remain with the organization in an on/off-ice player development consulting role, while also working to grow the club’s youth hockey initiatives.
“Travis was a great player on the ice, and an even better person off,” said Longtime Devils season ticket holder Diane Kuhn “He was always giving back to the community whether through hospital visits for sick children, or youth sports actives, he was always gracious and would give his time to those causes around him. I can’t recall a player event that he didn’t have a smile on his face, and wasn’t willing to talk it up with the fans. It was easy to see that although from Winnipeg, his roots were planted in New Jersey.”
I think Kuhn speaks for all Devils fans when she says New Jersey was lucky to have Zajac for the past 15 years. During the press conference David Blitzer perfectly summed it up by saying, “people aspire to be Travis Zajac.” The Devils will celebrate him on March 10, 2022 when the Devils take on the Winnipeg Jets.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and covers both the Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a co-host of Chicks & Sticks, a weekly Youtube show produced by THW. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettosBlog and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.