NYRANGERS.COM -- The distance between Richmond, Va., and Plymouth, Mich., is a little under a thousand miles, but in the world of hockey it is not a well-trodden path. It is the kind of journey that Zac Jones, when he was growing up in Virginia's capital region, playing on a homemade miniature rink, could never even fathom.
"Not a clue in the world," Jones said. "Even last year about this time when I was chosen for that All-America (Prospects) Game, and I had not a clue in the world that that would be even an option. I guess I've always been a guy that kind of flew under the radar, and I like that."
Plymouth is where USA Hockey has its home ice, and this summer Jones received an invitation to play there with the best players of his age group in the World Junior Summer Showcase. And as he has been doing through each new level of hockey, the 18-year-old blueliner did far more than just show up.
"I think he's a prime example of, if you're good enough, people are going to find you, whether it's Richmond, Virginia, or Minneapolis, Minnesota," said Brett Larson, the head coach at St. Cloud State who coached the American defensemen as an assistant to Scott Sandelin at the Summer Showcase. "Someone went out and found him, and obviously they found a kid with a lot of talent."
The Rangers jumped on Jones in the third round (68th overall) of June's NHL Entry Draft, a testament to the skill and smarts and two-way ability encased in what is currently a 5-foot-10, 176-pound frame, and also a major milestone in Jones' unlikely ascent. His hockey journey that began on a makeshift rink in Richmond, and then at prep school in Connecticut, has continued on through one stellar USHL season in Nebraska, through Vancouver for the Draft, and on through Plymouth this month when he was teammates with K'Andre Miller on the USA White team at the Summer Showcase. And that journey has made its way now to Massachusetts, where Jones will begin his freshman season at UMass-Amherst in the fall.
At every stop along the way, Jones has continued to turn heads and to surprise people at each new level -- not least of all, himself. "I thought I was going to South Kent all four years, that's it," Jones said. Instead, after being won over by a new coaching staff at UMass, he left prep school to play his senior season in Kearney, Neb., for Tri-City of the USHL. He had been passed over twice in the USHL draft, then put up 52 points in 56 games and earned the league's Rookie of the Year honors in a campaign his head coach, Anthony Noreen, called "probably the most impressive rookie season of anyone I've ever seen in the league."
His performance helped convince the Rangers to come calling in June's third round -- Jones said "I blacked out" when he heard his name called out at Rogers Arena -- and earn him an invite to the Summer Showcase, the elite-level tournament that is an audition for winter's World Junior Championships, which will be played this year in the Czech Republic.
"That was the highest level of hockey I've ever played. There's no bad players at that camp, nobody at all," Jones said in an interview with NYRangers.com from Amherst, Mass., where he has been getting to know his new teammates and his campus and setting up his class load for the fall. "I played at South Kent two years ago, and I didn't have a clue, not even a thought of me getting drafted, or me playing for USA in the World Junior A challenge. I didn't expect to play in the USHL last year. But I mean, I just kind of started playing my game, and started having more confidence, and it just took off."
"He makes great plays with the puck, he's got great vision, he's a power-play guy, a guy you can count on to break pucks out and transition them well. He has that ability to put the puck on guys' tape," Larson said of Jones, whose 25 power-play assists in 2018-19 broke the Tri-City record held by Jaden Schwartz. "Plus, in our brief time, I really like his attitude. You can tell that he was there to try out for the (World Junior) team, but he wanted to get better. Those are the type of kids that as a coach you appreciate." Video: Zac Jones describes play, mindset at WJSS
When Jones wanted to get better as a kid in Richmond, the first step simply was finding some ice, and it took the handiwork of a few fathers to give their hockey-mad kids an outlet to play the game. Zac's dad, Rob Jones, settled in Glen Allen, Va., in 1992 to begin growing his family while working as equipment manager for the ECHL Richmond Renegades. When Zac and some friends latched onto the sport, Rob and some other dads went to work building a miniature indoor rink for them.
"And that's all we did," Zac Jones said. "We'd go to school and be done and go to the mini-rink. That's what changed my life, really, was playing at that little rink, honing my skills there, trying to work on new things and stuff like that."
One of the skills he worked on was mere survival instinct. Jones has never been one of the bigger bodies on the ice, at any level he's played, but given how much time he spends with and around the puck, that meant carrying something of a target on his back. "I was a smaller guy, and I always had to keep my head on a swivel, that was the big thing for me," Jones said. "When I was smaller, everyone was trying to hit me because I was the small guy. Everybody wanted to be the guy that ran over that kid."
The goal, first and foremost, was "to avoid getting smoked," but the result was an awareness of his surroundings on the rink, and how plays or battles are developing, that now has coaches and scouts raving about his "hockey sense." "I've followed him for quite a while," Larson said. "He's just a very smart, heady player."
"Zac has a lot of qualities you can't teach," said Noreen, referring both to Jones' hockey sense and to his work ethic, "and that's part of what makes him so special."
It's certainly part of what appealed to UMass, and to head coach Greg Carvel less than a year into his tenure in Amherst. Like the state of Virginia, UMass-Amherst had never been top of mind as a hockey powerhouse over the years -- until, that is, last season, during which the Minutemen were ranked No. 1 in the nation for the first time in the program's history, and reached the NCAA championship game in the school's first trip to the Frozen Four. Watching their postseason run, and watching another offensive defenseman, Cale Makar, put together a season that would earn him the Hobey Baker Award, Jones had no doubt that his faith in UMass was well placed.
"They won five games the year before I committed. I was a little skeptical," Jones admitted. "But I saw the guys they had coming in, it was a great new coaching staff, and I saw something that maybe guys two or three years ago wouldn't have seen. And my parents saw it too. We just saw it, and it's the perfect fit for me."
Jones was one of three Minutemen -- two blueliners and a goaltender -- to be taken in the 2019 Draft alone. Jones' goal for UMass this season? "Win, no matter what," he said. "Personal goals would be great, but I'm not looking for personal goals. I mean I want to be a guy that can produce offense, but if the offense doesn't come and the team's winning games, I'm not going to be mad."
Following last season's run, the Minutemen are no longer a group that is going to sneak up on anybody, and Jones has come far enough from Richmond that the same may be said about him.
"He might sneak up on the fans, but if you're a coach watching defensemen, you certainly see all the little subtle plays he makes," Larson said. "His ability to make plays under pressure, in small areas, is really good. It's something that you notice every time you see him."
The Rangers noticed it, too, and their third-round selection back in June once again raised the ceiling on Jones' hockey career. Now the goal is to make Plymouth and Amherst way stations on a path to Broadway.
"One day to be able to wear 'Rangers' across my chest and to play in such a historic building like Madison Square Garden? That's something I dream about," Jones said. "If I'm lucky enough to do it, I'll probably black out for the first period. It'll be just like what happened at the Draft, honestly.
"I know it's going to take a lot of work to get there, for sure, but that's not something I've ever shied away from. I love that. I look forward to it."