HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Morning pick-up games at Skate Nation in Short Pump do not typically attract NHL talent to the ice. That changes, however, when Henrico-native Zac Jones returns home to work on his game.
Jones, 20, worked out at Skate Nation while on summer break from his full-time job as a defenseman with the New York Rangers.
Becoming a professional hockey player was a goal he set for himself as a kid.
"My parents always told me to have a Plan B but I've had a Plan A this whole time," he said "That's just to be a hockey player or just stay in hockey any way possible."
In order to do so, Jones left Richmond at age 14 to attend prep school in Connecticut.
There he was able to work on his game.
"I knew what I wanted in life and to make something of myself, I had to leave home. I couldn't stay in Richmond and play hockey," he said.
Jones made enough of an impression at prep school to be drafted third overall by the USHL, the top junior hockey league in America.
He was named Rookie of the Year playing for the Tri-Cities storm in Nebraska.
It was then that the dream of playing in the NHL started to become a reality.
"He was always smaller, but he always excelled and kept up with the bigger guys," father Rob Jones said. "I always told him, 'Zachary, you're gonna grow.'"
Jones and his family attended the 2019 NHL draft in Vancouver before he started attending the University of Massachusetts.
He had already spoken with several NHL teams about his future, but the announcement on draft night still came as something of a surprise.
"We're talking, talking and next thing you know from Tri-cities, Zac Jones! We're like 'holy cow!'" Rob recalled. "We were paying attention but we weren't. We were talking because we thought it was going to be a couple of picks later."
Zac Jones said he was nervous until he heard his name on draft night.
"It was a whirlwind of emotions. Every type of emotion you can think of was running through my body. It was awesome," he said.
Because hockey players are usually drafted before they attend college, Jones went on to UMass and helped the Minutemen win a national title his sophomore season. That's when things really started to accelerate.
"We won the national championship on the 13th, went back to school the 14th and signed on the 15th, I think it was, and left that night," he said.
After about a week of training with the New York Rangers, Jones made his NHL debut at home against Philadelphia.
He became the first Richmond native to play at pro hockey's highest level.
"Everybody's always in position, passes are always on the tape. It's just a crisp game," Jones said. "The speed is a lot faster obviously and it's more physical. You get used to that pretty quickly."
Jones played in 10 games at the end of the season for the Rangers and had four total assists.
It's the realization of a lifelong dream, but not the end of the work he will put in to reach his next goals.
"We don't praise him. We don't say you're the best or this or that. This is what it is dude. Now that you're in the NHL, guess what? There's going to be somebody right behind your back trying to take your job and your money. So you've gotta work hard to keep where you are," Rob said.
"I reached a goal. Let's put it that way. I still have more goals to go but this is another stepping stone that they are proud of and I'm super thankful to them for helping me get to this point," Zac Jones said.
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