When Zac Jones calls, it’s from a Richmond, Va., phone number.
He may have traveled the world, he may have recently been living in metro New York City and he may have just won an NCAA National Championship, but he always comes back to his hometown of Glen Allen, Va., a northern suburb of the Virginia capital city.
“I love Richmond, I still live there to this day,” said Jones, who was confirmed as the first Richmond native to play in the NHL - and just the sixth Virginian in history to make the Big Show. He made his NHL debut with the New York Rangers on April 22. “I go home every summer and live at home with my family still. The hockey’s not huge there, but it’s definitely grown the last two to three years.”
Richmond is, of course, a USPHL city, with the Generals having won the USPHL Elite championship in 2019. Jones himself counts himself among Generals alumni from their 16U team in the Eastern Junior Elite Prospects League (EJEPL), the Youth Affiliate of the USPHL.
Jones also went from the Generals 16U to the South Kent Selects Academy for three years in the USPHL 16U and 18U Divisions, helping the Selects win the 2016 16U title and 2018 18U championship.
It was a great harbinger of what was to come for Jones, who went on to help the University of Massachusetts to its first-ever NCAA Hockey National Championship in early April. The upward trajectory of his hockey career continued as he signed with the Rangers three days after hoisting the NCAA trophy, and he was in a Rangers jersey nine days later and for nine games after that as well until they closed their 56-game season on May 8.
“It’s been awesome, just getting to be around the professional players. One of the reasons I did sign right away was to be around the NHL guys and see their habits, their attention to details,” said Jones. “My first game [April 22 vs. Philadelphia] was a little nerve-wracking, but I’ve become more and more comfortable every game to the speed and physicality.”
He had a season-high three shots on goal in that first game, a 3-2 loss to the Flyers. His ice time nearly doubled from 9:45 in his debut to a season-high 18:46 on May 6.
In his debut, Jones got the traditional rookie solo lap for warmups. He was happy to be able to step out onto the MSG ice in front of his family.
“The first game is what you look forward to. That first time you step into an NHL rink, it was a special moment for me and my family,” said Jones. “Honestly, each and every game I’ve played, I’m just getting better each and every game. Every day I’m learning.”
On April 25, he earned his first assist against Buffalo, and had his first multi-point game (both assists) on May 5 vs. the Washington Capitals. He ended the season with an assist against the Boston Bruins on May 8 during a four-goal third period that led to a comeback win to put a bow on the Rangers’ season.
He’s already had a few “Welcome To The NHL” learning moments he’s not entirely proud of, but knows he can use them to improve his game for what he hopes will be a full 2021-22 season.
“The biggest thing for me is noticing how quickly the offensive transition is here. The other night, [the Islanders’] Matt Barzal made me look pretty stupid and made a good move on me. That was my ‘Welcome To The NHL’ moment.”
“It’s a different experience, but I love the challenge of coming in to prove people wrong and earn my way into a spot,” he added. “It’s just the personality I have. I always work for what I have.”
In Select company
Jones gives a lot of credit to South Kent Selects Academy and the USPHL for providing him the stage on which to flourish between his 16U and 18U years.
“It was awesome. I liked it a lot more than normal prep schools, who may play 25-30 games a year. We came in around late August, early September and were playing games the first weekend of September. We played 60-70 games a year,” he added. “You develop so much more, practicing four days a week and playing every weekend. We had a really good team. It was so good to play in the USPHL, that playoff style atmosphere. The USPHL was great for me and for my development.”
His teammate in his second USPHL 16U season and in his USPHL 18U year was Shane Pinto, who made his NHL debut just five days earlier than Jones, with the Ottawa Senators.
“I’m super thrilled for Shane. He got his first goal the other night [May 5]. He came in as a junior, when I was a sophomore, and no one knew who he was, but he also has a terrific work ethic and is super smart and worked his way into one of the top players in the country in a very short time,” added Jones.
As for Jones, he rose above what some might have seen as a height disadvantage.
“I was probably 5-4 that year, but I had a lot of confidence in myself. It grew tremendously [while in the USPHL],” he added. “I committed [to UMass] at the end of my junior year while still at South Kent and in the USPHL. Guys around me were always getting talked to, and the USPHL helped, because there were definitely college scouts at every single game.”
He also gives a lot of credit to the Generals program, who provided a Triple-A youth program in a non-traditional area that put the Generals up against teams from Detroit, Chicago, and Toronto. During the summer, Jones still skates at SkateNation Plus, often with the Generals USPHL Premier and Elite Head Coach R.C. Lyke running the sessions.
“He never coached me while I was in RIchmond, but he’s always inviting me to skate with his team,” said Jones. “It’s pretty hard to find ice in the summer in Richmond. R.C.’s always congratulating me on my career, and he’s just a great dude.”