The beginning of Connor Zary’s relationship with the city of Calgary began late Tuesday night with an open admission.
“I’ve never actually been to an NHL game live, which is embarrassing,” chuckled the personable Kamloops Blazers star from his Saskatoon home, minutes after being drafted 24th overall by the Calgary Flames.
“I’ve been to a couple pre-season games, but I know that’s not the same. Part of it is being in Saskatchewan. I’ve had a couple opportunities where my dad and mom said they’d take me to an Oilers or Flames game, but I always kind of chose an Atom or Peewee game that night, and was like, ‘I can’t miss my game. I’m not going to miss it for the world.’ I think that was always my attitude about hockey. I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from playing, even for an NHL game. Little bit of a funny story there.”
Zary’s chances of attending his first NHL action rose dramatically Tuesday night.
Dramatically, being the operative word, as the 19-year-old was put through an emotional ringer by Flames GM Brad Treliving, who did a significant amount of tap-dancing before selecting the exuberant centre.
Slated to pick 19th overall, the Flames felt comfortable with a slate of available players and opted to trade down for the New York Rangers’ 22nd pick in exchange for a third-rounder.
Shortly thereafter they pulled the same swap with Washington, moving to 24th in exchange for yet another third-rounder.
The draft is never a dull moment with Treliving at the helm.
“We had a group of players on a ledge with us – and Connor being at the top of that list – we thought we could pick up an asset and get to 22, and do it again and get us a couple third round picks,” said Treliving, who added he spoke to all the teams around him in the draft order ahead of time to see if they’d be keen to deal.
“It’s always a risk, but we got a guy we think a lot of. There were some anxious moments – the scouts were holding their breath when we were flipping down and names were coming off the board – but they really like this guy. And that centre position is critical.”
Before we get further into what the Flames feel they’ve landed in Zary, be prepared for more possible dealing Wednesday for rounds two through seven, as the Flames now have more options.
“It gives you some bullets for (Wednesday),” said Treliving, who let Lanny McDonald say a few words at the draft podium before the Flames legend called out Zary’s name.
“We think there’s depth in the draft. It allows you to make picks or try to be creative with those. Whether we make those picks or move up and down, we’ve got a little more ammunition now.”
Time will tell if it was all worth the wait for Zary.
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) October 7, 2020
The six-foot, 178-pound playmaker is coming off his third season in Kamloops where he had 38 goals and 86 points in 57 games, to finish fifth in WHL scoring. It’s the fourth-highest point total by a WHLer in his draft year since 2014.
Treliving deemed Zary a “Swiss Army knife” whose smarts, tenacity, truculence and finish are qualities that attracted him to a lad who will spend at least one more year with the Blazers where he’ll have a good shot at playing for Team Canada at the world juniors.
An outgoing sort with no shortage of confidence, Zary said he’s benefitted from an off-season of additional focus on strength and skating, which he thinks could have him vying for an NHL job two years from now.
“Two guys I try to play like are Bo Horvat and Ryan O’Reilly,” said Zary, a penalty killer who prides himself on playing a 200-foot game.
“Both can play any situation and can play a defensive style of game. They also have high skill and put the puck in the net and can play on the power play. I’m an all-situation guy and have a high hockey IQ and puck skills to be compared to guys like that.”
With the draft being held virtually, most first-rounders had Zoom cameras set in their homes to record their emotional journeys. Zary’s came with plenty of supporters around him on the couch.
“I had a few buddies over who were keeping it loose, and my auntie and my dad and everyone kind of supporting me,” said Zary, projected as a second line centre who felt confident Calgary would be a likely match following interviews.
“They were kind of thinking it would be Calgary, as well as I was. So it was a pretty special moment. Obviously a lot different than walking down to the stage to get your jersey. I feel like the NHL did a really good job setting this whole draft up. I think being able to have a few more family and friends here was amazing.”
Not quite as amazing as attending that first NHL game, with him playing in it.