With that, and an official press release the Devils announced the signing of Travis Zajac to a one-day contract and formal retirement as a Devil. Zajac will continue to work with the organization on and off the ice in his post-playing career and will be honored for his career at the Prudential Center in March 2022 when the Devils play Zajac’s hometown Winnipeg Jets. At least with fans back in the building this year, Zajac will get a more proper sendoff than he would have over the Spring (the Islanders didn’t play at the Rock in his brief tenure there).
It’s hard to explain to an outsider what Zajac meant to Devils fans, let’s just start with the basics – when you play 1000+ games as a first-round pick for one team, there’s gonna be a deep attachment between player and fanbase. Factor in the fact Zajac was a first-class individual who was always calm, unassuming and polite off the ice while still playing a smart, determined two-way game on the ice and it just deepened the connection that much more from the fans. Finally, there were big moments in big games…none bigger than during the Devils’ 2012 playoff run, which nearly ended before it started in the first round against Florida, but Zajac’s OT game-winner in Game 6 kept the Devils alive long enough for the Game 7 dramatics and further playoff hockey.
In fact the Devils made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, unfortunately the closest he would ever get to winning a Cup, though the Islanders gave eventual champion Tampa Bay a real run for their money in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. Zajac had a solid postseason in 2012, with seven goals and fourteen points in 24 games, not bad for a guy who only played fifteen regular season games that year due to a fluke training injury that put an end to Travis’s team record iron-man streak of 401 consecutive games played.
Aside from the consecutive games played record, his biggest individual accomplishments as a player came from 2008-2010 when he had two consecutive 60+ point seasons, centering the PZL line with Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner and reaching his career highs with 25 goals and 67 points in 2009-10. Those scoring numbers wouldn’t be the norm going forward however, Parise’s injury in 2010 and Zajac’s own injury a year later combined with Langenbrunner’s downturn led to the end of the PZL line. By the 2013 season Zajac was the only player remaining from the Devils’ one-time top line and he eventually settled into a later-career role of shutdown checking center who could put up 35-40 points.
Before he – and we – knew it, he became an elder statesman on rebuilding teams, never complaining or dogging it in spite of a lot of lean years. Apart from one five-game cameo in the 2018 postseason, the Devils never made it back to the playoffs again in the decade. When offered a chance to be on a playoff team in the spring of 2020, Zajac used his NTC to turn down a potential trade. On an expiring deal this year however, he approved a trade to the Islanders, who had two obvious pluses – location and once again working for GM Lou Lamoriello…who initially drafted Zajac here in 2004. Current GM Tom Fitzgerald openly rooted for Zajac (and fellow good soldier Kyle Palmieri) to win the Cup at the press conference announcing their trade. It wasn’t meant to be though.
Instead of adding anything more I’ll close this post off with Travis’s own words, as there can be no better ending for this blog or his career:
To his family, friends and fans, Travis released the following statement:
“I was drafted in 2004 and played my first game in 2006. As I stand here nearing the end of 2021, I can only be grateful to sign one last time, and retire as a New Jersey Devil.
“As a kid playing hockey on the outdoor rinks in Winnipeg, I dreamt about playing in the NHL. Growing up the oldest of four boys, it was the perfect hockey environment. Thanks to my parents unwavering support in our lives, that dream became a reality. Then, I got to live that childhood goal for 15 years with the Devils.
“I want to thank the New Jersey Devils organization for giving me the opportunity to play in the best league in the world. To the past and present ownership, managing partners, managers, coaches, and trainers, your hard work has not gone unnoticed- thank you. And thanks also to my agent, Kurt Overhardt, for always believing in me.
“I have to acknowledge all my teammates who helped me throughout my career. I will cherish all the memories made and I hope that I’ve impacted your life the way you’ve positively impacted mine.
“Now, to the fans, you are the reason this game is so special, and I leave the game knowing I enjoyed every moment I got to play in front of you.
“Lastly, I want to thank my beautiful wife Nicole and our kids Zenon, Veronika, and Anya. We have deep roots in New Jersey now. My wife went to graduate school at Montclair State, our three children, were born in Jersey and raised right here in this rink at Prudential Center. They know no other home and no other community like the Devils. It’s now time for me to embed myself into this same community where I grew into adulthood. It is where my heart is, my home, and I’ve never felt otherwise.
“Born in Winnipeg, Made in Jersey.”