Shortly after defenseman Alec Martinez
was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the fourth round (95th overall) at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, he received a text message from one of his best friends.
No, not the congratulatory message that most would expect.
The text message read, “I can’t get away from you, can I?”
The message of course was jokingly sent by goalie Jeff Zatkoff, Martinez’ teammate and roommate at Miami University and a fellow Kings prospect as the netminder was Los Angeles’ third round choice, (74th overall) just last year.
“It is really neat,” Martinez said. “Having a buddy around that can help you out with things is pretty cool. He was [at development camp] last year so he told me a little about camp and what to expect.
“It was definitely beneficial.”
Zatkoff downplays the conversation: “He called and asked me a bunch of questions about camp. I kept telling him to play his game and he will be fine. There was a reason why he was drafted and he should not worry about it and just go out there and have some fun.”
Zatkoff and Martinez have known each other since the duo were sophomores in high school as the pair played for the Honeybaked AAA Hockey club (www.honeybakedhockey.com) in Michigan.
The two went their separate ways in 2004-05, as Martinez joined the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League and Zatkoff joined the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers. Martinez tallied 10-11=21 in 58 games while Zatkoff was equally successful going 13-6-3 with a .914SV% and a 2.55 GAA with one shut out as both teams earned a spot in the post season.
As fate would have it, the squads would meet in the championship game with Martinez and the Rough Riders defeating Zatkoff and the Musketeers to win the Clark Cup Title.
“It is a touchy subject,” Martinez recalls. “He tells me to quit living in the past.”
After the season, Martinez committed to play for the Redhawks at Miami University, while Zatkoff was undecided…that is until his buddy began calling him with Miami in search of a back stopper.
“I committed without even seeing the school,” Zatkoff remembers. “[Martinez] played a big part in me going there with what he had to say about the coaches, the program and the school.
“It is nice going into school knowing you will be going to school with one of your best friends.”
Zatkoff comes from an athletic family as his father (also named Jeff) was drafted by the Indiana Pacers, his great uncle, Roger, played for the Detroit Lions and his grandfather, Ronny, suited up with the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers.
He had a fantastic freshman season for Miami head coach Enrico Blasi, posting a 14-5-1 mark with the nation’s fourth-best winning percentage (.735), a .928 SV% and a 2.02 GAA, gaining the attention of the Los Angeles Kings.
Martinez also played well, appearing in all 39 games on the season notching three goals and 10 points to help the Redhawks achieve the first No. 1 national ranking of any team in school history posting a 26-9-4 overall record, skating to just the second Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season title in program history with a 20-6-2 league mark.
With Zatkoff in the Kings organization, Los Angeles personnel routinely scouted the Redhawks for the 2006-07 season, and Martinez stole some of the attention, scoring 9-15=24 in 42 games.
“LA was out there watching Zatkoff and I think I was able to catch their eye a little bit,” Martinez said.
Zatkoff also had a good year, posting a 14-8-3 mark with a 2.26 GAA and a .919 SV%, despite missing time to join the 2007 U.S. National Junior Team for the World Junior Championships in Sweden, where he played with Los Angeles’ Jack Johnson and fellow Kings prospect Trevor Lewis.
"I had a great time," Zatkoff told LAKings.com back in January. "For me personally it has been a great experience. This is the first time I have been to Europe and the hockey has been incredible. It is a great step for my development."
The 2006-07 season was a bit of a roller coaster for the Redhawks as a four-game winless streak at the end of January and a three-game losing streak at the end of February and early March nearly killed their chances of reaching the post season.
Despite the inconsistent play, it was the second straight year that Miami earned an NCAA appearance and they entered the post season with an all-time mark of 0-4 in NCAA Tournament games. Zatkoff made 43 saves and Martinez finished +1 as Miami shocked heavily favored New Hampshire 3-0 to advance to the regional final.
“We had nothing to lose and just went out and played our game and shut them down,” Martinez said.
Having lost to Boston College 4-0 to end their season, both players look forward to their junior years at Miami in 2007-08, and hopefully sometime down the road, a shot at the NHL.
“It will be a dream come true to not only play in the NHL but to be on the same ice with one of your best friends,” Zatkoff said. “Life doesn’t get much better than that.”