It is true that Winnipeg, Manitoba can be a cold place.

The winter wind seeps into your bones. The famous street crossing of Portage and Main is often referred to as the coldest and windiest intersection of the 3,855,100 square miles that make up Canada.

But along those streets, as cold as they may get, the city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba shape some of the warmest people. Its short winter daylight hours foster its sons and daughters into hardworking, humble people; where little is taken for granted.

That may as well be the story of Travis Zajac. Hardworking, humble and takes little for granted.

"Growing up here, we're just we're kind of laid-back people," Tom Zajac, Travis' father shared, "So, I think the area is kind of laid back in that respect, you know, come winter times, there's not much to do. So, it's basically hockey. I think it shaped Travis." He is a son of Winnipeg.

Young Travis Zajac
Young Travis Zajac 2

“The type of community that we have here in Winnipeg,” Mr. Zajac recalled, “Yeah, it's shaped him in that respect.”

“Winnipeg definitely built who he is,” his wife Nicole added. She too is from Winnipeg and the couple met when they were teenagers. “Winnipeg is a community of kindness. It's never about the car you drive, the house you live in, any of that stuff. It’s never about any of that. It's about whether or not you're a good person. And I feel like Trav embodies that.”

As a young boy, Travis learned to skate on the community outdoor rink, the closest was just a two-minute drive from his childhood home.

“Winnipeg being such a cold city, really what else do you do?” recounted Mr. Zajac, “Whenever we could, we took him to the rink, an outdoor rink, was two minutes away and I’d drop them off, him and his brothers or him and his buddies.”

Travis is the oldest brother, with Darcy, Kelly, and Nolan following behind.

“I remember him growing up, he was always unselfish,” Darcy, the second of the four Zajac brothers remembered, "Always unselfish. Like, even at that age, he would try and pass the puck regardless who it was. He was very unselfish.”

They have played hockey at various levels, in various leagues. Darcy is a year and a half younger than Travis.

“To be honest, being the younger brother, I always thought I was better,” he laughed.

And then Darcy paused.

“You know, I’m thinking back now, and I wonder, was he always even trying that hard [against me]? Or was he letting me have success too?”

That theory would check out, what with everything we know about Travis. Finding personal success, while also letting those around him shine, even have the spotlight.

With a personality like Darcy’s, there was hope in maybe pulling back the curtain, is Travis and has Travis always been the cool, calm and collected character. It’s cliché to say but were there ever anyone to fit that specific cliché it would be Travis. Not even his younger brother would deny it.

“He hasn't changed,” Darcy was quick to share. “He was always laid back, he always tried to help me out […] I think I probably annoyed him because, I was younger brother playing with him, trying to keep up to him, looking up to him. And he hasn't really changed that much. But you couldn't really get him upset. And I think that's one of his strengths.”

That’s the first bit of insight into Travis’ life before New Jersey that shows he has always embodied the qualities of who the New Jersey Devils are, well before they were on his radar, well before there was even talk of a career in the National Hockey League.

Draft Day

Asking around, no one around Travis can really pin-point the moment where they thought the National Hockey League was on the horizon, a possibility for the quiet boy from Winnipeg.

“It's not something he ever talked about,” Nikki revealed.

Maybe that would explain why he almost didn’t attend his own NHL draft.

“It’s true,” Travis affirmed. He almost didn’t go.

It was June 26, 2004. A long way from Winnipeg, Travis and his father Tom Zajac were sitting in the Carolina Hurricane’s arena, as the 2004 NHL Draft began. The draft would produce some of the league’s best-ever players, with the likes of Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

When Travis’ skates touched the ice on his 1000th game, only he and Ovechkin will be members of the 2004 draft class to reach 1000-plus games.

At the urging of Travis’ agent, Tom Zajac decided maybe he better make some plans to get to Carolina where the draft was being held.

“It didn't dawn on me, right,” the elder Zajac said, “I just didn't think about the idea that ‘Yeah, maybe he is a pretty good player and maybe he is going to get drafted high,’” he confessed.

Again, that humble Zajac family trait. It clearly begins at the top with Travis’ parents Tom and Trish. You can tell where he gets it.

Zajac Draft Day Photo

Tom scrambled a week before to put together a travel schedule from Winnipeg to Carolina and find a place to stay. It ended up being just father and son.

“There was a chance I was going to go in the first round, and as we got closer it felt like there was more of a chance,” Travis said with a chuckle, “so we were like ‘yeah, I guess we better show up. So me and him just went. I just remember sitting in the stands that day with him.

“We had no idea, it was a big deal,” Nikki confided. She stayed home, sitting in her living room, watching on television. So did Trish, she had three other boys to be watching at home.

With every bit of understanding of Travis’ childhood, the family he has that surrounds him and the people in his life, it all makes sense how the New Jersey Devils have always been a perfect match.

“When the Devils called my name, it was really surreal,” Travis continued, “To be sitting there with him, all the sacrifices he’s made for me to get to that point in my career, it was special shaking his hand and then going up to grab the jersey and be part of this organization.”

Zajac Game Opening Ceremony

Arriving In Jersey

When Claude Julien first saw Travis Zajac, he was just a freshly drafted player attending the Devils Development Camp.

“I saw him at the rookie camp before the main camp started, right away, the way he played and he handled himself on the ice just jumped out to me,” Julien recalled, “It was one of those situations where he looked so polished, so mature. I could already see him, you know, being part of our team.”

Julien was excited, he saw something special. He wanted him a part of his team.

Then came the hard part as Julien tells the story. How would General Manager Lou Lamoriello consider putting such a young player, right out of college onto his NHL lineup?

Julien wanted him a part of his upcoming NHL roster, but he kept that to himself after seeing Travis at Development Camp. Let the chips fall where they may.

“The only challenge that was happening at the time is that, back in those days with Lou Lamoriello there, he wasn't a big fan of having a first-year player start off with a big team. I think the only exception at that time was Scott Gomez, who had been able to make that team right from the get-go.”

Next would come main training camp, opening that September. Luckily for Julien, there was no need to convince anyone, Travis let his play do the talking.

“He came to the main camp, and he did so well, that there was no question that he should make the team. And Lou was on board with that and everything else, I was happy to see that.”

Fresh off his second year at the University of North Dakota, Travis had all of a sudden become a full-time NHL player. His rookie seaon was in 2006-07, and how Julien describes what he saw of him then in that rookie year, continue to ring true today.

“He was such a modest individual,” he recalls of that first year. “You know, polite, modest, respectful. So, he had all the attributes of a mature athlete, even at a young age. So that's what I remember the most about him. And he came in and had a good first year with us. We had a great year, had success, and he was part of it.”

Lasting Legacy

And since that year, Zajac has been a staple. His name synonymous with the New Jersey Devils, although you’d never hear him say that.

Even before his skates touch the ice for the 1000th game of his NHL career, he’s already firmly in the franchise record books. Have a look at goals, assists and points, Travis’ name is there. Those are lasting legacies that can never be taken away.

But one can argue there is an even bigger gift he has given and continues to give the franchise.

You have to consider, is Travis now playing one of his most important roles?

The current changing of the guard on this current edition of the New Jersey Devils is obvious, and Zajac is the final member of the team that truly connects the past to where the team is heading. He played alongside Martin Brodeur, he played alongside Zach Parise, he played alongside Jamie Langenbrunner, Patrik Elias, and now he’s that bridge. As the oldest member of the team, he is surrounded by players who some were not yet in elementary school when he was drafted on that day in 2004.

Zajac hasn’t worn the ‘C’ as a captain, others have taken that role through his tenure with the club, but the impression he leaves upon his teammates is that of a leader, a player, and a man of captaincy qualities. With such a young locker room, you couldn’t imagine a better leader shepherding in the new generation, a new generation of talent ready to leave their own mark.

If there is anyone who knows a thing or two about leaving an indelible mark on a franchise, it’s Ken Daneyko. Their careers never intersected on the ice, but Daneyko has watched every stride Zajac has taken. He also gets the significance of this moment and understands Travis enough to know that others will celebrate his accomplishment more than Travis will.

Daneyko was previously one of just three players to have played 1000-plus games for the Devils franchise. It’s still a short list, but also remarkable who is on it. After Daneyko it goes:

Patrick Elias.

Marin Brodeur.

And now, Travis Zajac.

Daneyko could not envision welcoming someone more deserving than Travis. For all the championships that Daneyko, Elias and Brodeur won, there is more than enough room to welcome a player like Travis into this exclusive club. “He came damn close in 2012,” Dano reminds everyone. But the accolades of a championship, although it’s what ‘everyone is chasing’, don’t tell the whole story. That’s not the only way to make a permanent impact on a team.

If just for the New Jersey Devils, the character of the man is held in the highest regard. Legacy can be just as much about the championships, as much as it can be who you are and what you stand for.

“He certainly has embodied what the New Jersey Devils organization, the logo is all about,” Daneyko shared, “Both on and off the ice. And yeah, we always hear ‘off the ice’ but I really mean it. He is such a great character guy. A great human being and just a great role model for younger guys in the room.”

And it is on that premise where Daneyko stressed the impact not only championship-winning teams can have on a franchise, but individuals like Zajac can leave their own lasting impression. Where the franchise stands now, there is a changing of the guard as young players like Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes take over starring roles. There is a changing of the guard, but it’s happening under Zajac’s watch, he is becoming the fabric bridging the past generation of Devils talent into the future.

“He had one real run at it,” Daneyko said of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final team, where Zajac and his teammates fell short to the L.A. Kings, “It's really difficult, because the ultimate goal is to win, and nobody wants to win more than Travis and who knows, right? There’s a really bright future with all these young prospects, and there is nobody better than Travis to really guide those guys. And I think, if he doesn't quite get that elusive Cup, this is, this is kind of the next best thing for him.”

Daneyko doesn’t pretend to know what Zajac is thinking or feeling. He can only surmise from what he knows of the time he’s spent with Travis. But if you listen closely to stories from Travis’ family members, Daneyko is on to something.

“I think when he was drafted by [Lou] Lamoriello, I think Lou's philosophy was being a team first,” Tom Zajac recalled, “And I think that's what Travis has liked all these years. He's a team player. I think he's like any athlete who will obviously, we all want to be the hero, but I think on the other side, Travis is fine with being a team guy.”

"He certainly has embodied what the New Jersey Devils organization and the logo is all about."

- Ken "Mr. Devil" Daneyko

In 2020 Zajac was approached by General Manager Tom Fitzgerald. There were opportunities to trade him at the deadline, he’s a piece to a puzzle General Managers around the league would love to have down the stretch, to put their teams over the line.

Zajac respectfully chose not to waive his no-trade clause for an opportunity. Something that didn’t come as a surprise.

“I think he probably had that opportunity if he ever wanted to, or in the past, to leave,” his father remembers, “Even though obviously, it was talked about last year, that maybe he'll look right for the chance to [win], I talked to him I remember him saying ‘No, you know what? I really like it here. I don't necessarily want to move. I don't want to move. This has become home.”

“I know the situation, I know where we’re at,” Zajac said around the 2020 Trade Deadline, “But right now I want to be part of it and be here to help guys. I want to help lead the way on and off the ice. I think that’s where my head is at right now.”

And that’s the key. Travis Zajac has made the New Jersey Devils his home, as much as the New Jersey Devils feel at home with him. That’s probably part of why he will become just the 67th player in league history to play 1000-plus games for a single franchise.

“We just became sort of knit in the fabric of Jersey,” Nikki said, sharing that she and Travis had originally built a home back in Winnipeg with the intensions of eventually returning. “We got our own groups of friends outside of hockey. Our kids have their sports, their schools, their friends. And so that's changed our mind. We found so many fantastic people here, that we're comfortable. Yeah, happy where we are.”

Nikki Zajac hopes her husband takes the time to appreciate and enjoy the moment, because it truly is a great accomplishment. He knows it’s coming, all the pomp and circumstance around a 1000th NHL game. Even stories like this, you have to wonder how he might feel, maybe even a little embarrassed. There’s also a good chance if he’s reading this, he hasn’t gotten this far, never wanting anything to be about himself, always team first.

His mannerism, his way of being, is so clearly the mold of what this franchise stands for.

“We always see so many long-time players, great players for an organization. And, you know, they're chasing the elusive Cup. Everybody wants to win. And he came damn close in 2012. That was his one real run at it. It's really difficult, because the ultimate goal is to win, but nobody wants to win more than Travis.”

Travis Zajac Smiling

And so here we are, on the day of Game 1,000.

Walking past Travis in the hallway, you would have no idea anything was different. That is because for Travis, it probably isn’t. He’s suiting up once again, pulling that Devils logo he has worn since that first day in Carolina in 2004.

“He wouldn't trade that for anything, like this and being able to be a Devil, for you know, knock on wood, his whole career, would be something that's incredibly special,” Nikki said, “And I know that he knows that as much as he won't say anything, and he'll be humble Trav. I just want just want to say when something's happening, open your eyes, soak it in and just like be proud of yourself.”

We know we sure are.

“I can't say enough nice things about him,” Daneyko paused, “He's just been a true, true Devil.”

Travis Zajac 1000 Games