Zachary Jones was born in Richmond, Virginia and he had an unusual path to the NHL draft. Only five Virginia-born players ever made it to the NHL, and only three of them played more than 10 games. Zac Jones hopes to become the next one.
I sat down with the 3rd round pick from the 2019 draft to get to the finer details of his remarkable story so far.
From Virginia to Nebraska
When Zac was little kid, his dad, a goalie in high school got together with 8 other dads in the neighborhood and they decided to build a rink. “It was half-size and the 9 dads ran it for a couple years until it got too expensive and they had to close it,” Jones began. “The rink had ice and everything. It was so much fun and I miss that rink. I wish it was still around today.”
The rink may not be around anymore but without it Jones may not be where he is today. Living in Richmond until the age of 14, Jones was approached by a prep school in Connecticut. It was an easy decision to play at South Kent, despite being away from his family. While there he played on the same team as Joel Farabee, Mathias Emilio Pettersen and Shane Pinto among others.
After his freshman year, Jones was drafted and then approached by the Tri-City Storm of the USHL and it was a logical step up. Off the ice, the jump wasn’t that hard but on the ice, it was a bigger adjustment than his move the following year to college.
“Tri-City is like South Kent. It’s in the middle of nowhere, in Nebraska. Once I got used to life there, it was fine. The step to college from USHL was easier than the jump to USHL from u18. I adjusted quickly in college“. In his one USHL season, Jones finished with 52 points in 56 games and 5 in 6 in the play offs. It was enough to be on the radar of several teams ahead of the 2019 draft in Vancouver.
Draft and a summer of hockey
Zac Jones flew to Vancouver for the draft after not being sure initially, but he was happy to go. He saw his name on the board on day 2 and then walked down to meet the front office, be given his jersey and then go to the green room for interviews and signings.
“Being drafted was a great experience. I spoke to the Rangers once and didn’t think they were going to pick me,” Jones recalled. “I was at the draft with my parents, my advisor and my high school coach. It was awesome. I initially didn’t want to go but I am happy I changed my mind.”
He spoke to his friend Patrick Giles who flew to Dallas the year before despite not being selected and asked him if he would still have gone knowing he would not be drafted. Giles responded “100% I would have gone“, convincing Jones to make the trip.
Jones was drafted in the 3rd round and it was an experience to remember forever. He didn’t get to see the city unfortunately due to the busy schedule. Once day 2 concluded, he was sent to New York to attend the prospect development camp in Westchester.
“It started off messy. I was on the same flight as Leevi Aaltonen (5th round pick). Our bags were left in Vancouver so we needed new gear for prospect camp”, Jones said while laughing. “Funny now looking back but it was another tremendous experience playing against Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox“.
Jones’ roommate was Morgan Barron who he got to know quite well over the summer. He prepared Jones for life in college and helping him through the first challenges while adjusting: “He (Barron) was a top player in college and has signed now with the Rangers of course. He was a big help for me“.
After the prospect development camp, Jones traveled to Plymouth, MI to join the u20 USA team for the Summer Showcase, where he would be playing with K’Andre Miller and against Nils Lundkvist, Karl Henriksson and Olof Lindbom. Jones enjoyed every second of it.
“It was the first real WJC experience for me. I played in the World Junior A Challenge before but this was my first time being among the best of my age group with guys drafted in the first round,” the defenseman said. “It was a great experience and I learned a lot from that.”
College and the World Juniors in the Czech Republic
Following the Summer Showcase, Jones embarked on his next adventure in a rather hectic 2019. Having committed to UMass Amherst on Nov 14th the previous year, Jones was ready for college.
He joined a team that had just lost Cale Makar but the Calder Trophy winner has been a huge part of Jones’ development. “I spoke to Cale a few times asking for advice, going to the same school as he did. It was great to meet him and have him as a mentor.”
Growing up, Jones always knew he was going to play hockey in college. He needed to develop more as a smaller kid. “Getting to work out and practice 5 days a week, followed by games on the weekend in the best conference in the country is the best thing for me,” he said. “I had a great freshman year and cannot wait for year two.”
Zac Jones had 11 points in his first 9 games but after that he tallied off a bit. It gave him a huge confidence boost which will fuel him when his sophomore season starts. “I know I have more eyes on me in my sophomore season, but I like the pressure,” Jones explained.
The most intense games are easily the ones against Lowell, Tyler Wall’s team. Jones was very impressed by the goalie who signed his entry level deal earlier this year. “He made a save against us where he dove backwards, reaching with his glove and it was a top-5 play of the year for me. He has the perfect name for a goalie too. The games against Lowell are really intense. Chirping after the whistle. They are an hour away so it’s a big rivalry“.
In December, Jones was called up for the u20 national team to compete in the World Juniors in Ostrava and Třinec. Having K’Andre Miller there was a huge help for Jones.
“K’Andre Miller and I hung out a lot during the WJC. We talked about how great the organization is and being part of the same team in the future,” Jones said about his teammate. “He is a great player, great kid off the ice and gonna be one of the guys in the NHL next season. I got to learn a lot from watching him play.”
Team USA was unable to bring home a medal, losing to Finland in the quarter finals. Despite some challenges off the ice, it was a tournament and experience to remember. “The bedsize was my biggest challenge in the Czech Republic. The beds are just so small compared to the US. Sleeping two feet away from a roommate. And the rooms were so hot,” Jones remembered. “I wouldn’t change anything. The World Juniors last year was my one shot and it’s an experience I will never forget“.
Torey Krug and the number 51
When asked who Jones models his game after, the answer is a quick one “As a kid I liked Erik Karlsson, but now that I am a bit older, I try to model my game after Torey Krug, a smaller guy, offensive, responsible in his D-zone“. As a kid, Jones was a fan of Dany Heatley. In high school he wore 51 because of it. And while he changed to number 38 and 39 in Tri-City and now 24 in college, if he gets the chance to pick a number he will go back to his days of following Heatley closely. “51 is a nice number for a defenseman“, he says.
Jones is a well-traveled kid. Aside from the Czech Republic for the World Juniors, he has been to Russia, Sweden, Slovakia and even Italy. “There was a tournament in Bolzano with a huge rink“, Jones says about his time there.
During the pandemic, he has been busy training and working. He loves fishing, and sometimes helps out his dad in his restaurant. “Aside from skating, I’ve done everything else. I tried to convince my dad to build me a new rink but he refused“, Jones says jokingly.
That rink may never come back, but it certainly has served its purpose. Jones can become only the 6th player born in Virginia to make it to the NHL, and if he does, that home-made rink will be where it all began. To quote Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come”.
PS: I want to thank Zac Jones for sitting down with me and giving me the opportunity to share this story with our fanbase. I met him at the 2019 NHL Draft and he was taking his time to talk to a lot of Ranger fans and pose for photos. A great kid.