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Parise reaches 1,000 NHL games the hard way

Bloomington native has played with abundance of guts, fortitude since entering the NHL in 2005

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

Rock bottom for Zach Parise was when he found himself stuffed into the back of his wife's SUV, curled up and on his way to repair a back injury that had rendered him all but useless.

Playing hockey games, all he knew for almost three decades, was the least of his concern.

He couldn't sit at the kitchen table to eat his meals. He couldn't play with his kids. He couldn't lay in bed. 

Every aspect of his life had been turned completely upside down by the numbing pain he was in nearly every moment of every day. 

He was 830 games into his NHL career at that point, one of the better players of his era and arguably the finest Minnesota-born forward the League had ever seen. And at that moment, as the SUV rolled into TRIA Orthopedics in Bloomington, Parise's entire career seemed in jeopardy.

Reaching 1,000 games was a pipe dream. Just getting to 831, at times, seemed like a longshot. 

But now, just over three years after that fateful ride in the trunk of the car, Parise is about to suit up in an NHL game for the 1,000th time in his NHL career, a milestone that once seemed impossible is now at hand. 

"That thought crosses your mind, of course," Parise said. "But at the same time, I wasn't saying that to myself. 

"I was pretty optimistic. At the time, I was just like, 'I don't care, I just need to put an end to this.' I wasn't really thinking long term. But just like any athlete, I was thinking, 'OK, let's fix this so I can get rehabbing and get going again.' But I was never thinking I wasn't too worried [about playing], I just needed to put an end to [the pain]."

Parise's positivity paid off. The microdiscectomy operation he had was a success, and a few months later he was back on the ice. He missed half of one season rehabbing, but returned to play in 74 of 82 games last season and has played in all 53 games this year. 

Game 54 Friday night in Dallas was his 1,000th in the NHL, making him just the eighth Minnesota-born player to reach the milestone. 

Perhaps most impressive about the post-back injury portion of his career has been that he hasn't changed his style of play one bit. He's still the always-moving, Energizer Bunny willing to go to wherever necessary to put the puck in the net.

That's the way he's always been, and that's the way he'll always be.

"It is impressive and it hasn't been easy for him because he plays in those hard areas right in front of the net. That's where he makes his living," said Wild.com's Ryan Carter, a teammate of Parise's in both New Jersey and in Minnesota. "He's had the back injury, the knee injury [with the Devils] but he continues to go there. And when I think about him, you can talk about stats ... but really, it's about the intangibles with him; the effort, the tenacity. He truly loves the game."

At times, Parise plays the game with the chutzpah of a fourth-line player. He's not afraid to block a shot or take a cross check in the back or go in hard on the forecheck to create a turnover. 

The fact he's willing to play like that is unusual for a guy who certainly isn't a guy playing fourth-line minutes. 

"The way he works on the ice, he leads by example," said Wild forward Marcus Foligno. "His work ethic is tremendous. He's a guy that when he comes to the rink, he's going to give it his all every day. And as a young guy coming in, you can learn a lot from a guy like that."

Parise leads all Minnesota-born NHLers with 381 career goals. He's among the Wild's all-time leaders in most offensive categories despite the fact that he's played nearly half his career somewhere else. 

His willingness to play that way despite his status as one of the team's best players has been a quality that has endeared him to guys like Carter, who played a grinding, fourth-line role for much of his 10 seasons in the NHL. 

"Playing in 1,000 games is never easy, but especially the way he plays," Carter said. 

The style he plays has been his trademark ever since he was a kid. It was instilled in him by his father, former Minnesota North Star J.P. Parise, who was a heart-and-soul player himself during his NHL career that spanned 890 games with Boston, Toronto, Minnesota, the New York Islanders and the Cleveland Barons. 

Zach wasn't born until five years after J.P.'s playing career had ended, but J.P.'s influence is rooted deep inside Zach's game.

Zach first played for his dad at Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Faribault. J.P. took over as the director of hockey at the school and also coached the bantam team when Zach was a second-year pee-wee. 

But Shattuck didn't have a pee-wee team, which meant 12-year-old Zach had to play up with kids a year or two older and a year or two bigger than he. 

He's still not the biggest guy in the world, but at the time, Parise knew he'd have to grow up in a hurry and take his licks if he wanted to succeed. 

"That was the only option really," Parise said. "By my third year there, the game came pretty easy to me at that level. And we had an unbelievable team too. I don't think we lost three games the whole season, so you play with good players and those guys made me better."

In addition to being the youngest player on the team, Parise also fought hard against the notion that the only reason he was on the team was because he was J.P.'s son. He desperately wanted to prove to others that he was deserving on his own merits.

"It makes you have to compete that much harder," Parise said. "You never want that image of, 'Hey, you're only on the team because your dad is the coach.' You put in a little extra effort to let people know that, 'I belong here. I've earned this.'"

Parise would go on and play two years with the prep team at Shattuck, scoring 69 goals and 162 points as a junior in 2000-01 and 77 goals and 178 points his senior year in 2001-02.

He continued straight to the University of North Dakota, where he scored 26 goals and 61 points as an 18-year-old freshman playing against guys some nights who were six and seven years his senior. 

The following summer, he was drafted 17th overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 2003 NHL Draft. 

After one more season at UND, Parise turned pro and played 73 games in the American Hockey League during the 2004-05 season, a year where the entire NHL schedule was wiped out by a lockout. 

He debuted in New Jersey in October of 2005, where NHL veterans like Martin Brodeur, Brian Rafalski, Brian Gionta, Patrik Elias, John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner made an immediate and long-lasting impact on him.

"I went in there and started on the fourth line, playing four or five minutes a night," Parise said. "There was a standard there, and if you strayed, they would let you know right away. You went in there and earned what you got. It was pretty intimidating, but at the same time, they were all super welcoming."

After signing his first contract, he went to the game and entered the locker room afterward. 

The first guy to spot him was Brodeur.

"He came up to me, shook my hand and said, 'Welcome,'" Parise said. "They were really good about getting me into the mix and making me feel like I was a part of the family right away."

Parise played seven seasons for the Devils, leading New Jersey to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012 before signing his landmark 13-year, $98 million contract with the Wild on July 4, 2012. 

Now in his eighth season with his hometown team, Parise remains after one of the few goals left on his checklist: a Stanley Cup championship. After being to the Finals once in his career, he has a deep understanding of just how elusive that goal is.

Having seen rock bottom physically two years ago, he also understands what it means to reach a milestone like 1,000 NHL games. It hasn't always been easy.

"We're lucky to do what we do and it could end at any time, that's just the reality," Parise said. "I don't think I look at the game any differently because of [the injury], I think I've always appreciated it and felt lucky to be playing in the NHL."


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