THE GREAT UNKNOWN

February 22, 2010

Say hello to Zach Parise, the best player in the NHL you don't know. Remember his name, because he may write another golden chapter in the history of U.S. hockey.

At mile marker 112.6, near Exit 16E, a hockey player looms over the mighty ribbon of the New Jersey Turnpike. You can't miss him, even at 55 mph. "Score with reading," Zach Parise, identified as NJ Library Champion, says on the billboard. Even if no one speaks like that, it is worthwhile counsel for Garden State school kids, although the guess is Parise, decked out in his Devils red-and-black number 9, removes his helmet before cracking a copy of The Great Gatsby between shifts.

To review:

Sidney Crosby promotes Reebok (where he has his own line of clothing), Gatorade, the Tim Hortons chain of coffee and doughnut shops and also stars in NHL television commercials.

Alexander Ovechkin endorses CCM (where he has his own line of clothing) and a video game for 2K Sports, sang in a hilarious commercial for a Washington, D.C., area car dealership and is prominent in league commercials too.

And counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, Parise does a PSA for the state library system.

This hardly seems fair. Crosby has the Stanley Cup, and Ovechkin has the Hart Trophy, while Parise—"the best American forward, for sure," Olympic coach Ron Wilson says—has the Dewey decimal system. Even Parise's breakout 45 goals last season and 28 goals and 61 points through the Devils' first 61 games this season have not raised his profile, except maybe with commuters. Parise is still surprised, and not displeased, when someone recognizes him. "Kind of surreal," he says. "Pretty cool."

So the face above the traffic is the best hockey player most of you don't know, at least until the puck drops at 7:40 p.m. ET on Sunday in Vancouver. The Olympics. Team USA versus Team Canada, in the penultimate game of the first round. Thirty years after the Miracle on Ice you might want to consider skimming the background of a player so gritty and gifted that by the end of the Games, he may write a new chapter in the history of American hockey.

The story of the son actually begins 12 years before he was born, in a Moscow arena half a world away, when his father, reputedly among the most reasonable of men and workmanlike of left wings, brandished his stick and swung it like a rail-splitter in the direction of referee Josef Kompalla. The ref was from West Germany, although there was no doubt in the minds of Canadians watching the 1972 Summit Series that Clueless Joe was bucking for a Hero of Socialist Labor award. Two matches earlier Kompalla had whistled 31 minutes in penalties on Canada while calling just two minors against the Soviet Union. His head might have been as lopsided as those numbers had J.P. Parise followed his impulse and poleaxed the ref after being called for interference, the third dubious penalty against Team Canada in the first 250 seconds of the conclusive Game 8.

"If I had followed through," says J.P., "I might still be in Siberia."

He would play 890 games for five NHL teams. He would score 238 goals. During his 12 full seasons in the league, only three teams—Montreal, Boston and Philadelphia—won the Stanley Cup. See, the Summit Series and international hockey were his Stanley Cups. Even more than his lightning overtime goal for the country-mouse New York Islanders that eliminated the city-mouse Rangers in the first round of the 1975 playoffs, his career is remembered for a checked swing.

"I must have a guardian angel, because '72 was the year great players like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, [John] McKenzie, [Derek] Sanderson jumped to the WHA and weren't allowed to play in the Summit Series," says Parise, now general manager of the Des Moines Buccaneers in the USHL, an American junior league. "So I was really lucky to represent my country. I always told Zach that after a series, standing on the blue line, hearing your national anthem ... there's nothing more exciting, more captivating than that. And then in Slovakia in 2002, when he scored the winning goal with 58 seconds left [in the world under-18 tournament], he was standing on the blue line and freely sobbing. I was with my wife in the stands. I turned to her and said, 'See?'"

Zach's national anthem is, of course, different than his father's. Zach was born and raised in Minnesota, seasoned at the University of North Dakota and drafted in 2003 by New Jersey, a team with seven players from the States. Of course playing for the Devils provides Stanley Cup opportunities his father never had—New Jersey, second in the Eastern Conference at the Olympic break, has won three since 1995 and has missed the playoffs only once in the past 19 years—but it also is the hockey equivalent of entering the witness-protection program.

Even the rare Devil with name recognition, goalie Martin Brodeur, the NHL career leader in wins, shutouts and games, suggests Parise needs a grander canvas for his art to be truly appreciated. "I went through that my whole career—[people saying] is it him or is he a product of the system?—until I played for Team Canada and got out of it," said Brodeur, starter for the Olympic gold-medal-winners in 2002. "It's all about how you perform when you go outside this bubble we have here and into the real world. For Zach, the Olympics could be his coming-out. No doubt it will be."

In addition to Slovakia, Parise occupied the international stage in Helsinki in 2004, when he captained the U.S. to its first world junior championship, and in Vienna, Moscow and Halifax, Nova Scotia, in '05, '07 and '08, at the world championships. But those tournaments were mere hillocks on the vast sporting landscape. The five-ringed circus that begs for America's up-close-and-personal attention every four years—that's something different. "This is when the country tunes in," Parise says. "It's important for the U.S. to have a good showing [in Vancouver], to get the excitement back for hockey."

Goalie Jack McCartan became a sensation 50 years ago for backstopping Team USA's gold medal in Squaw Valley; he later would play 12 NHL games, winning two. Mike Eruzione has been dining out on Lake Placid for three decades, although he never played in the NHL (but did pot 30 for the IHL's Toledo Goaldiggers in 1977--78).

Enter Parise, a hero in the making. "Since the first practice we had this year," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire says, "I can't expect a player to be better than this." Twenty-one of Parise's 28 goals have come at even strength, tied for seventh in the NHL. He is so responsible without the puck that between Nov. 4 and Dec. 2 he was not on the ice for an opposing goal, a remarkable streak for a player who averages nearly 20 minutes. (He's +24 for the season.) Although American fans instinctively gravitate to the goaltender—presumptive starter Ryan Miller has been the NHL's best in the first half of the season—Team USA belongs to Parise. If this quick, small but determined group claws its way to a medal, the fulcrum will be the first-line left wing with a face on loan from a Giotto cherub.

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press in November, Steve Yzerman, Hall of Fame Red Wings captain and general manager of Canada's Olympic team, was asked who would he want to be if he could come back as a current player. Yzerman chose Parise. "I really got a good look at him at the worlds in Moscow [in 2007]," Yzerman said in December, before scouting a Lightning-Devils game. "Love the way he plays. Just a great, nifty player. And he works his butt off."

Parise spent his life looking up to players like Yzerman. Who knew Yzerman would one day be looking up to him?

Or down. Parise is listed at 5'11" and answers to 5'10". ("Definitely 190," he says. "I'll step on the scale right now if you want.") If he ever decides on dual citizenship like J.P., who became an American citizen in 1988, Zach should shun Canada in favor of Lilliput. "I remember Zach was always around the rink in Minnesota," says Tampa Bay G.M. Brian Lawton, who played for the North Stars when J.P. was an assistant coach in the 1980s. "Then all the way through Shattuck"—Parise attended Shattuck--St. Mary's School, the prep hockey factory in Faribault, Minn.—"I'd see him and talk to him. Honestly, I thought he was a really good player but probably too small for the NHL."

But Parise had a plan. When he was 14 or 15, Lawton recalls, Parise's father told him that Zach would go to bed at nine o'clock "because that's what hockey players did. I thought J.P. was kidding."

At 15 Parise's meticulousness was charming. At 25 it is merely professional. Although he's among the NHL's shiftiest players, he employs a skating coach, Diane Ness, who also works with the U.S. Olympic women's hockey program. (She has helped with his center of balance and low-speed cornering and is trying to refine a bowlegged stride. "In my 35 years of coaching," she says, "no one has worked as hard as that young man.") And while former teammates call him well grounded—"He's pretty much an oatmeal cookie: not a big splurge but solid," says Los Angeles Kings defenseman Matt Greene, his roommate at North Dakota—Parise still routinely talks to Garret Kramer of Inner-Sports, who describes himself as a "mental performance coach." Before taking the ice for a practice or a game, Parise attaches a muscle stimulator so he is properly warmed up. And 20 minutes before the official start of practice, he leads four or five forwards onto the ice to work on offensive moves, a group that former Devils center Mike Rupp, now with Pittsburgh, last season dubbed the Shot Club. As Lemaire, a contemporary of J.P.'s, says, Zach works like his father but has twice the talent.

"There's so much to like about his game, especially that he's not afraid to play in traffic," Lawton says of Parise, who has scored 14 of his 28 goals from inside 15 feet. "But as a hockey player I think character is his strongest asset. As we've seen recently in today's world of tumultuous events"—Lawton was referencing Tiger Woods, not Afghanistan—"that's a really valuable asset."

"He's all about hockey," Brodeur says. "His commitment to the game is second to none. He started going in early to work on his shot. Then one guy, then another, joined him. He started with the stim machine, and now he's got a bunch of guys in the room doing it. That's leadership. He was a shy kid, but I think he has realized how good he is, which really helps him. It's been my team for so many years here, but now I believe it's his team. I may still be the face, but he's the future."

Parise's face towers above the Turnpike, a player who seems to be in everybody's good books. Unknown? The Olympics should cure that. To paraphrase a slogan that originated in Atlantic City, about two hours south of mile marker 112.6: Here he comes, Mr. America.

J.P. told his son, "After a series, HEARING YOUR NATIONAL ANTHEM, there's nothing more exciting."

According to a former roommate, Parise is "pretty much an OATMEAL COOKIE: not a big splurge, but solid."

PHOTOPhotograph by Peter GregoireDEVILS' ADVOCATE Parise's gritty play, care with the puck and 45 goals made him a favorite in New Jersey last season. A strong showing in Vancouver would raise his profile beyond the Northeast. PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE NEW JERSEY STATE LIBRARY[See caption above] ILLUSTRATION PHOTOHHOF IMAGESCOUNTRY MEN J.P. (left, in the 1972 Summit Series) passed on his love of international hockey to Zach. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)