TORONTO — Zach Hyman was on top of the hockey world that day, and he stood taller than the CN Tower.
The year was 1999, and 7-year-old Zach was playing in the biggest game of his young career. He skated circle to circle at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Toronto Maple Leafs were playing their final season before moving to the Air Canada Centre.
When the puck dropped on the final game of Toronto’s prestigious Timmy Tyke Tournament, Zach turned into a miniature Mats Sundin.
He sniped his way to a hat trick, the tournament’s most valuable player honors and the watch that was given to that award’s winner.
After the game, Zach quietly gave the timepiece to a less fortunate teammate.
“The real prize was playing at Maple Leaf Gardens,” Zach would later tell his dad, Stu Hyman.
Before he exited the arena, before he jolted back to mites after the bright lights, Zach took his time. He poured over the photos of NHL legends that lined the concourses and lobbies.
“Let’s go, son,” Stu prodded his son, recalling the story more than a decade later.
But Zach was in no hurry to leave the place where his NHL dream felt the most alive. He knew nothing of the work it would take, the decisions that would be made and the places he would go to get there. But somehow, he felt it was meant to be.
“Dad, I want to play in the NHL one day,” Zach said confidently with an undeniable twinkle in his eye.
“I believe you. You will,” his father encouraged.
Nearby, a team parent, who worked as a psychologist, overheard and was incredulous.
“You shouldn’t agree to that with your kid,” Stu recalled the man saying. “You shouldn’t tell him he’s going to play in the NHL.”
“Why not?” Stu replied. “He’s my kid, and I’m going to support him.”
Eleven years later, Stu remembers that conversation.
Zach didn’t know it then, but Mountain Arena would be his home ice one day. His years there as a member of the Hamilton (Ont.) Red Wings of the Ontario Junior Hockey League would bless him, reward him and, eventually, send him off to bigger and better things.
Right then, though, on Hamilton’s opening night in 2003, 11-year-old Zach was meeting his idol — NHL legend Gordie Howe. And what Howe was about to tell Zach would change his life.
Zach’s dream of the NHL was alive by then with all the passion of a pre-teen kid from a family where kids are “born with a stick in one hand and a puck in the other,” according to its father. He’d do anything to get there, so he asked Howe what it would take.
“I want to be a hockey player just like you,” Zach told Howe.
He smiled down at Zach and planted a seed of hope in him that hasn’t stopped growing.
“One-hundred percent is all we ask,” Howe said. “See you in the NHL.”
Zach’s brother, Spencer, a Michigan commit for next season, skated to the faceoff dot. He relished the opportunity to play alongside his older brother on the Hamilton Red Wings, and this game at Mountain Arena was no exception.
Across from Spencer stood a member of Oakville Blades.
“Get your brother out of this league,” he said to Spencer. “It’s not fair.”
Don’t blame the opponents for asking for a reprieve. Zach tore up the junior level. He led Canada with 2.37 points per game in 2010-11. As a result, he was named Canadian Junior Hockey League Player of the Year.
But when your dad owns your team, as Stu does the Hamilton Red Wings, opponents are going to mouth off, or “chirp,” as his mom, Vicky, likes to say. Zach’s been told that he was only on the team because his father owned it more times than he could count.
“Through my time in Hamilton, I proved all those comments wrong,” Zach said. “It helped me become a stronger player. I turned out to be the leading scorer in the league. People didn’t talk anymore.”
Stu, who at one time owned around 90 junior hockey teams in addition to Hamilton, said some skaters had more on their mind than simply trash talk.
“Coaches tell me they circle his name on the board in the locker room and say, ‘Let’s get Hyman. Let’s get him out,’ ” Stu said. “In his draft year, Detroit came up to me and said, ‘If we draft him, we want him out of the league’ because it was too physical.”
“You have to be careful after the whistle,” Spencer added.
While Zach was rewriting the OJHL’s record books, his children’s book “Hockey Hero” hit bookshelves.
“We make our destiny every day, Tommy.
Like those statistics, you got to set your own goals, shoot, score and make them come true.”
Zach gazed out into a sea of 1,000 pairs of eyes at a Greater Toronto middle school, turning the pages carefully of the short story-turned-book he originally penned for a seventh-grade competition.
Principals call in droves to bring Zach in to talk about himself, his dreams and the importance of following them.
Zach’s too selfless to ask for any type of appearance fee for his time. Like his 7-year-old self with the MVP watch, he wants to help others. But now, the prize isn’t playing at Maple Leaf Gardens, it’s encouraging others to pursue their passions.
His baseball story, The Bambino and Me, is in the hands of his publisher, Random House of Canada, and is expected to be released in 2013.
On March 27, 2010, the best new Ontario Hockey League players were skating at Toronto’s MasterCard Centre, preparing for the league’s invite-only pre-draft combine. Zach couldn’t be found, and people were noticing.
Most households around Ontario would have cherished the invite. Some would have stuck it on the refrigerator — a sight to behold for beaming mothers and proud fathers. Zach’s invitation went right in the garbage bin.
Zach was the lone prized player absent on that day, so naturally Stu’s phone rang.
“Where’s Zach?” the voice on the other end asked.
“He’s going to the NCAA.”
There are five Hyman sons in all, the youngest of which is Shane. Like any 9-year-old hockey player in Ontario, Shane dreams of the NHL. But he’s got a different idea of how to get there.
When his hockey buddies say they’re going to play major-junior hockey, Shane responds, “I’m going to Michigan.” (Rob Facca, an assistant at Western Michigan, once told Stu he would commit to the 9-year-old already. “We’ll have a lot of publicity,” Stu remembered Facca telling him. “He’ll be the first ’03 kid committed to college.”)
“The OHL comes dangling and they make it really enticing for young kids,” Vicky said. “But I think the bottom line is, you need something to fall back on. You need an education. (The NCAA) is becoming more popular.”
Zach strolled across the stage where the ice typically sits at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. June 26, 2010, draft day — the day his NHL dream became a tangible reality.
The long wait had ended. At the other end of the stage, a Florida Panthers executive held out the red, blue and gold sweater that would become his own.
It took five rounds of selections and 11 years since Stu made that promise to his son at Maple Leaf Gardens, but it had finally happened. The NHL was in sight, but then came the fork in the road that so many top junior players before him had experienced — NCAA or OHL?
For Zach, it was a non-decision decision.
“I don’t even remember one instance when the OHL popped into my mind when I was making a decision,” said Zach, who committed to Princeton University at just 15. “I didn’t ever really think about the OHL.”
Zach had been a member of the Florida Panthers organization for no more than 15 minutes, and he had already described himself as a “power forward” who “loves to crash the net” in an interview with the Panthers’ website. He didn’t realize it then, but he’d be a completely different player in two years time.
In April 2011, Zach was back at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, taking in a Kings game. While he watched, he hoped he would get the chance to play there one day.
During the game, he got word that Princeton head coach Guy Gadowsky was interviewing for the same job at Penn State. Zach didn’t think much of the news — he believed Guy would be there when he stepped foot on campus that fall.
The next day, Zach and Spencer unwound in the living room of their grandfathers’ California home. Zach spanned to attention as a television anchor broke the news that altered his future.
“And the new head coach of the Penn State hockey team is Guy Gadowsky.”
Zach’s jaw dropped.
Not two minutes later, the phone rang. Gadowsky was on the other end. Somehow, Zach managed to get words out.
“It was shock,” Zach’s mom Vicky recalled. “Zach was one of the first ones he called.”
Zach and Gadowsky were close. Vicky said his decision to originally commit to Princeton “came down to Guy.”
There was a comfort level between the two of them that would make many coaches envious. It takes a special kind of relationship to get a kid to commit at only 15, as Zach did.
“He told me the news and he felt really bad because of the situation I was in and the relationship we had,” Zach said. “It was four years in the making that I was going to go play for him and that school.”
Following Gadowsky to Penn State wasn’t ever a serious option. The Nittany Lions would still be a club-level team for another season, and Zach didn’t want to take another year off, like he did in 2010-11 to play in Hamilton.
When he committed to Princeton at 15, he started a trend of early hockey commitments by doing so. But Zach’s recruitment was suddenly wide open, just four months before he had planned on arriving at Princeton.
“As soon as he decommitted, it was overwhelming,” Vicky said. “You got a taste of what movie stars go through. They were fighting for him.”
It’s 10 hours from the Hyman’s Forest Hill neighborhood in the heart of Toronto to Boston. Stu’s phone rang for nearly half the drive as he drove his two oldest sons to Boston College and Boston University.
Zach had a decision to make, and everyone wanted to see him before he made it.
“Every 10 minutes, the phone rang,” Spencer said. “Norm Bazin (head coach at UMass-Lowell) was like, ‘Stop by on your way.’ UMass called. Maine, we went to. North Dakota, Minnesota — they all wanted us to come.”
Some of the schools never stood a chance. The family narrowed the decision down to the Boston and Michigan areas, largely because of the great academic reputations for the Ivy League-caliber student.
On the way back from Boston, with Boston University the clear leader in the clubhouse, the Hymans detoured to Ann Arbor for a stop.
It would be their last.
Zach and Spencer sat across from Red Berenson in the coach’s office, while Berenson laid out why they should be Wolverines. It didn’t take long.
“Ten minutes into Michigan, we had completely forgotten about every other school,” Spencer said. “It was over. Zach and I were sitting in the (Ross Academic Center) and we looked at each other and it was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to Michigan.’ ”
When Zach arrived in Ann Arbor in fall 2011, his suitors were still pleading. The OHL executives kept calling.
“In Michigan, right at the beginning of the year, we were getting offers for him to go,” Stu recalled. “Guys were saying ‘Red’s not playing him properly,’ and ‘He’s a goal scorer but he’s playing defensive forward’ and ‘I can take Zach to the NHL.’
“We just said ‘Thanks a lot.’ ”
At the start of last season, though, the puck just wasn’t going in for Zach. He heard metal after seemingly every shot — frustrating after scoring basically at will the season before.
Berenson has been coach of the year in the NHL before. He knows the type of forward that today’s game demands. If you’re going to be a part of his program, you’re going to play sound two-way hockey.
Berenson met with Zach and told him he wanted to see more of a two-way game out of him. Don’t worry about the points, Berenson told the natural goal-scorer.
Zach’s not the first to have that conversation with Berenson. He certainly won’t be the last. But he has bought into the system as well as anyone in program history.
His dad compares him to Luke Glendening — last season’s captain and the type of team-first leader that every locker room needs but not every one can have. Zach scored only nine points last year compared to 102 the year before in Hamilton. He played only two more games in Hamilton than at Michigan.
“I would’ve liked to have had more of an offensive impact,” Zach said. “But in the NHL, if you can’t play defense, you can’t play. You need to be a two-way player in the NHL nowadays.”
Fred Bandel, the amateur scout for the Florida Panthers responsible for Michigan, hadn’t seen Zach before the draft. So his description of Zach as a player reflects only on his development as a Wolverine. And you can’t tell from his input that Zach wasn’t always the sound two-way player he’s become and that Berenson adores.
“He’s a strong two-way player,” Bandel said. “He’s added a strong element of defensive play to his game, which complements his offensive skills. He’s going to have a good opportunity to play on the big team one day.”
Zach wasn’t supposed to be there, arms extended triumphantly, being swallowed up by his teammates.
His dad and Spencer weren’t supposed to be up there in the club level, exuberant.
It’s Oct. 19 and the Michigan hockey team is comfortably ahead of opposing Bentley. His linemates, two freshmen, swarm him, grateful for his contagious work ethic.
The scene — Zach lighting the lamp — isn’t what’s unique, but rather the backdrop is. It took some twists of fate for him to end up in Ann Arbor, instead of Hobey Baker Rink — a barn that predates even Yost on Princeton’s campus.
But now Michigan, as his mother Vicky says, “is like a home to him.”
Now that he’s here, he won’t leave until his time’s up.
“He wants to play for Red for four years,” Stu said. “He’s not going early. Zach’s going to be there the whole time, all the way through.”
That’s just the kind of person he’s always been — patient, knowing his NHL dream comes closer to fruition with each passing day.