Travis Zajac is looking forward to going home.
The centerman will play his first NHL game in his native Winnipeg on Thursday, when the Devils visit the Jets. Zajac, who grew up a Jets fan, missed both trips to Winnipeg last season while recovering from Achilles surgery.
For years, Zajac couldn't have envisioned even having a hometown team, much less facing them. After 17 seasons in Winnipeg, the original Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996 and became the Coyotes. It wasn't until 2011 that NHL hockey returned to Manitoba's capital when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated north of the border.
"Once they left, you thought they were gone for good," Zajac said Tuesday. "It was exciting to see them come back. Obviously, they have fantastic fan support there. They have a great ownership group which is key for them now and it sounds like they're going to be there for the long haul."
The franchise got its start in 1972 with World Hockey Association and found early success, winning three WHA titles. But after joining the NHL in 1979, the Jets would win just two playoff series before heading to Arizona.
Those struggles didn't stop Zajac from being a fan and collecting Jets jerseys.
"I had a few," he recalled. "I probably had a (Dale) Hawerchuk one… Thomas Steen. I just remember going to his hockey camps when I was younger in Winnipeg. That was kind of cool. I played with (St. Louis forward) Alex, his son, growing up. It was kind of cool to see those guys playing. I was a big (Teemu) Selanne fan, too, obviously."
Among Zajac's favorite Jets moments was Selanne scoring 76 goals in 1992-93 to set the single-season mark by a rookie. Almost as memorable was Selanne's celebration after breaking Mike Bossy's rookie record of 53.
"Throwing the glove up and shooting it was pretty cool," Zajac said. "I did that a lot growing up."
Zajac notched his fourth of the season on Sunday, snapping a four-game point drought. Centering Patrik Elias and David Clarkson, he's hoping to find his groove going forward.
"I thought we played pretty well," he said. "Obviously with Patty, there's a reason why he's one of the best players in the League. He just makes everyone around him better. Clarky's having a great season. He's great at turning pucks over and he's making plays, he's getting to the front of the net, he's doing a lot of good things. That's why he's having a lot of success this year.
"They're two guys that are easy to play with. They talk a lot; they make it easy. We'll see where that takes us."