He's not flashy or famous, but Parise is still one to watch
TORONTO -- Zach Parise was walking out of the visitors' dressing room at Air Canada Centre this week when a reporter leaned over to us and whispered, "Who's that?"
"That" is the best-kept secret in the NHL.
Parise's 18 goals through Wednesday night make him the fifth-highest-scoring player in the league. But do you think, even for a second, that the 24-year-old New Jersey Devils forward had to fight off hordes of fans while in one of hockey's biggest markets this week?
"I haven't had any problems, not at all," Parise told ESPN.com, blushing while letting out a chuckle. "I guess we don't get the press coverage that the Canadian teams do. And that's fine. Or even not being a Canadian kid. The U.S. kids may not get as much coverage. That's fine, too. It's not an issue."
Maybe it's because the Minnesota native's goals aren't often of the highlight-reel variety. On Tuesday night in Toronto, it was another typical Parise goal -- a loose puck poked from just outside the crease. Not a beauty, but they all count.
"That's how I get my scoring chances," said Parise, who is coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons. "I'm not going to get an Alexander Semin goal -- end to end. I get most of my chances from hard work."
Tip-ins, redirects, poke-ins, wrist shots from close in -- Parise has spent hundreds of hours before and after practice working on just these things.
"If you see the way he deflects pucks and picks up garbage goals, these are all things he practices on his own, and it really pays off for him," his father, Jean-Paul Parise, told ESPN.com.
Type "Parise" into a search engine, and you'll see three players listed -- father, son and son. Jordan Parise is two years older than Zach and plays goal for EC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. He also was a Devils prospect. Dad J.P. played 890 regular-season games in the NHL, mostly with the Minnesota North Stars and the New York Islanders in the 1970s. He was known as a hard-working, reliable, two-way player and posted five 20-goal seasons.
"He wasn't flashy as a player, he wasn't a superstar, he just played hard every night, and I think I kind of inherited that trait from him," Zach said.
"I grew up in Niagara Falls and watched his dad play," said David Conte, the executive vice president of hockey operations and director of scouting for the Devils. "I really admired him as a player. I remember when [Canada] took him for the '72 Summit Series team over more higher-profile guys because of his ability to win. I think he's bred that into Zach.
"I think hockey-playing fathers are usually very good because they understand how precarious the game is and how you're only as good as yesterday, and they usually keep a level footing. I think J.P. does that for Zach."
When Zach left the University of North Dakota to begin his pro career, Dad had some simple words of wisdom for Kiddo.
"My advice to him was, 'One of the things you can always control is to be one of the hardest-working players on the team,'" J.P. said.
Zach took those words to heart. He doesn't take a day off. Consider the following comment from Devils coach Brent Sutter, who is not exactly known for throwing around flowers.
"He's a coach's player," Sutter told ESPN.com. "He's someone you love to coach because, every day, he does what's asked of him. He leaves it all out there. He works his tail off game in, game out, practice in, practice out. He's the first on the ice, the last one off.
"He's just one of those guys that you love to coach because you know what you're going to get from him every day."
Added Conte: "With Zach, what you see today is what you always see -- 100 percent tenacity with an exceptional skill level. That's a tough combination not to succeed with."
Conte, one of the NHL's top talent evaluators, couldn't believe the Devils' fortune in the 2003 draft -- Zach was still available when New Jersey was up at No. 17.
"We had no idea that he would be there," Conte said. "I didn't think there was any chance he'd be available to us."
Think the New York Rangers are thrilled they took Hugh Jessiman 12th overall that year? Mind you, it was a deep draft. Mike Richards went 24th overall to the Philadelphia Flyers, Corey Perry 28th to the Anaheim Ducks and Shea Weber 49th to the Nashville Predators, among others. The Devils aren't complaining. They got a stud in Zach.
"He's one of the more dynamic young players in the league," Conte said. "And when your best players are your hardest workers, that's really a good sign for the team. Zach is certainly one of the better players and unquestionably one of the hardest workers. He brings his dad's tenacity and team orientation."
Dad oozed pride when asked about Zach's quick NHL success.
"He's remained a very, very humble kid," J.P. said. "And he's always forever trying to get better. All the time. He's never satisfied with his game. He's had to work on his skating and he's had to work on his strength and he's had to work on a bunch of stuff. You see the nice results of that."
The old man played in perhaps the most famous series in the history of hockey in September 1972, when Canada came back to edge Russia in a thrilling eight-game set, a drama played out with the backdrop of the Cold War.
Zach probably won't top that, but a trip to Vancouver in February 2010 with Team USA wouldn't be too shabby.
"That would be awesome," J.P. said. "I played 13 years in the National Hockey League, and during that time, only three teams won the Stanley Cup -- Montreal, Philadelphia and Boston. So I was never a Stanley Cup winner. For me, Team Canada [in] '72 was kind of my Stanley Cup."
Zach took a deep breath when the subject of 2010 came up.
"I don't even have to tell you it would be unbelievable," he said, shaking his head. "It's definitely a goal of mine. I'd love to be there to represent the U.S. Hopefully, it works out. Time will tell. But that would be a great experience."
One thing's for sure -- if he does make the team, his dad will be there watching.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.