How Zach Parise made an indelible stamp on American hockey

NHL

DENVER — Growing up in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, meant Casey Mittelstadt spent countless hours watching Minnesota Wild games and wearing the No. 11 jersey of his favorite player whenever he played pond hockey as a child.

Being a kid from Robbinsville, New Jersey, who grew up watching the New Jersey Devils gave Ross Colton a sense of pride knowing he could someday get to the NHL by studying the traits of a certain hard-working, two-way winger who was his idol.

One of Jason Robertson’s biggest entry points into hockey was playing the EA Sports NHL video game. He was 7 and didn’t know much about the league, but playing those games allowed him to go through teams. He saw the Devils, he liked the logo and red was his favorite color, so it all fit together. It also made him a fan of a forward who would become a six-time 30-goal scorer.

Each of these anecdotes underscores how much Zach Parise means to hockey in America.

These are among the reasons why many of his Colorado Avalanche teammates want him to rethink his retirement plans and stay around for at least one more year.

“I really hope he doesn’t hang them up,” said Avalanche forward Brandon Duhaime, who grew up in South Florida watching Parise play. “I was just telling him yesterday that he’s coming into his prime here. He’s been really fun to watch and what he contributes to the lineup is super important.”

Parise has repeatedly said this will be his final season. After not signing with a team as a free agent at the start of the season, he joined the Avs on a one-year contract on Jan. 26, with the hopes he could win the Stanley Cup that has eluded him throughout a 19-year career in which he has scored 434 goals and 889 points in 1,254 regular-season games.

That’s what could make Wednesday one of the more emotional nights in Parise’s distinguished career. With the Dallas Stars holding a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series, the Avs’ next loss could be the final game of Parise’s career.

And if this is really it for Parise? His career, while it might not have a Stanley Cup, will be filled with moments that have made him one of the most important figures in American hockey over the past two decades.

The 39-year-old was one of the faces of the generation of players, including Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Quick and Ryan Suter, who provided a blueprint for how Americans could find success at the highest levels of the game.

That’s what made winning America’s first IIHF World Junior Championship back in 2004 beyond special. It’s what made the U.S. reaching the gold medal game and pushing Canada to the brink in overtime at the 2010 Winter Olympics impactful. Those moments allowed a new generation of American players to understand they could compete with the best in the world at international tournaments and in the NHL.

Players, regardless of age, go out of their way to talk about how Parise carries himself the “right way” on and off the ice.

“I haven’t really thought about it all, to be honest,” Parise said when asked about his legacy. “I think you just get so consumed in just playing and having fun with it. I’ve been fortunate to wind up on some good teams, being on the first [U.S.] under-18 team to win the gold, the first [U.S.] World Junior team to win the gold. I look at those two teams that were pretty important for USA Hockey, but I never looked at it from an individual standpoint.”


As players slowly left Ball Arena after an optional practice, the double doors from the Avalanche’s dressing room opened and walked Parise out.

He’s less than two months away from turning 40 but looks like he might be in his early 30s. Dressed in a prep school white ball cap, a dark T-shirt, a black jacket and blue jeans, he sported a look that makes him one of the Avalanche’s more stylish players.

Parise grabbed a seat and for the next 19 minutes, he answered questions while also learning just how much he still means to so many American youth hockey players.

His eyes widened upon hearing how he was Mittelstadt’s childhood hero and that his current teammate wore his sweater as a kid. He learned how, when Mittelstadt and his buddies were kids, they ran around screaming throughout a Minnesota cabin on the day Parise signed with the Wild.

That’s when he also learned Mittelstadt had held off on telling him this because he wanted to play it cool.

In a way that’s uniquely Parise. He showed his appreciation while expressing a level of humility that’s typically more reserved for a rookie rather than a 19-year veteran who has been the face of two franchises.

What allows Parise to be that way, when he could bask in the fact that he has been such a crucial part of so many lives?

“I think I was raised that way by my parents,” Parise said. “I grew up in that environment at Shattuck [the Minnesota prep school known for its hockey program]. That was just the culture that is there. It’s all about the team and not the individual, but hearing that, it means that you did the right things.”

Setting an example was always something Parise thought about with deep regard. It has become an even greater priority now that he’s a father. That’s why talking about his own father causes him to get choked up.

Of all the lessons Jean-Paul Joseph-Louis Parise taught his children, the most important was to be the best person they could be. That meant making time for others, being polite and realizing that being nice to someone never hurt anyone.

How much do those lessons mean now, with Parise at the end of his career, nine years after his father passed away?

“We all want to follow in our dad’s footsteps,” Parise said, his voice breaking. “The way I hear about how people talk about him, you want people to talk about you the way they refer to him. Since he’s passed, I’ve had so many people in Long Island or that I don’t even know who have pulled me aside in rinks after morning skates and just say, ‘I played for your dad’ and what he meant to them and the impact he left on them.

“When it’s all said and done and you’re done playing this sport, you want to leave a good impression. It goes back to wanting to be like your dad.”

J.P. Parise played for Canada in the famed 1972 Summit Series. With his father representing Canada, was there ever a thought for Parise to play for Canada? Or was it just understood he was going to play for the U.S.?

“I was born here, my dad had become a U.S. citizen and I guess it never really crossed my mind that was an option,” Parise said. “It was like, ‘Here’s the path.’ When you’re 15 and going to selects and you’re playing for the under-16s or whatever it was. I’m not even sure that was even a thought.”

Representing the U.S. at such an early age allowed Parise to get in on the ground floor of the next wave of American hockey. It’s not that Team USA didn’t have talented players throughout various levels. It did. But winning international tournaments proved challenging.

The U.S. men’s team has won only two IIHF World Championships, with the most recent coming in 1960. While the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s team won the gold medal, the nation didn’t return to the podium until 2002, when it won silver. America’s next podium appearance at the Olympics came in 2010.

Capturing the first gold medal in American history at the U-18 World Juniors in 2002, then winning the nation’s first goal medal at the 2004 World Juniors built more momentum. Six years later, the U.S. fielded a team at the 2010 Olympics that placed the world on notice that a shift could be coming.

Now it appears that shift has arrived. Although it is early, Team USA is one of the favorites to win both the 4 Nations Face Off in 2025 and the Winter Olympics in 2026.

“You look back, and I know USA Hockey has had a lot of success since then, but you take pride in, ‘Hey, we were the first ones,'” Parise explained. “We had an impact on what they’re doing now and how they’re winning all this stuff now. You feel like we broke through and were able to set a good example for these guys.”


It was Valentine’s Day when Colton’s cell phone blew up. He wasn’t getting heart emojis from friends.

What he got that day were several texts from his friends about the fact that he was now going to play with Parise.

“When he first got here, I just wanted to feel him out. I think he knew I was a big fan of his,” Colton said with a smile. “But once we started to play cards together on the plane or started going to dinners with him, I definitely asked him some stuff about my childhood and his years in Jersey. He’s been amazing. He doesn’t get annoyed. It’s really cool to see, but that goes to show the kind of person he is to make someone’s day.”

Culture is one of those words front offices throw around when it comes to building the sort of program that can win championships. The Avalanche have a particular culture that helped them win their third Stanley Cup in 2022, and there’s a belief they could win more in the years ahead.

Even with those core tenets in place, there’s still flexibility to incorporate more, which is what makes Parise even more valuable.

“The one thing I always love about him is that he’s one of the first guys on the ice and one of the last guys off,” Colton said. “He’s doing little stuff after practice. He’s shooting pucks. He’ll ask you, ‘Do you want me to pass you some pucks?’ Coming from a guy like that, it should be the other way around. He’s the first guy who wants to help you with your game.”

Whether it’s his current set of teammates or those who have played against him, nearly everyone has something to say about Parise and his impact on the game.

“When I first got to New Jersey, the staff there, all they talked about was Zach,” said Avs forward Miles Wood, who started his career with the Devils. “I didn’t have the privilege to play with him there, but what he did to the organization over his time there, he was such an impactful player.”

Duhaime, who was traded to the Avs from the Wild at the deadline, was a prospect when Parise played in Minnesota.

“I did one or two camps with him and he was always super nice,” Duhaime said. “I was an American League guy and always on the outside looking in. He was there and he was nothing but great to those young guys.”

The relationship between Johnson and Parise has existed for years. Johnson was a freshman at Shattuck when Parise was a senior. They represented Team USA together over the years, and were reunited this season when Parise joined the Avs in January.

“I think every great American player has had an impact because those are the guys that kids watch,” Johnson said. “When I was a kid, I watched Brian Leetch and Chris Chelios. Each generation watches the previous great players of that generation, and he’s one of them. I know he had an impact on me. He was a guy I looked up to.”

Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Connor shared his thoughts on Parise during his team’s first-round series against the Avalanche.

“He’s a big part of a lot of the Olympics and Team USA,” Connor said. “I think the type of motor and type of player — while I’ve never met him personally — from what I see, he gives it his all every single shift. … That whole team and USA Hockey throughout the years and the success they had, it really helped grow the game in the States as well.”

Another one of his contemporaries, Stars center Joe Pavelski, provided a different perspective.

“He’s been a player who leaves an impact,” Pavelski said. “I’ve gotten to play with him a few times for Team USA and have been around him a little bit. It was great to be able to do that and see what he’s about as a player and as a person. I have a lot of respect for Zach.”


From practices to morning skates to warmups to games, there is an expectation for anyone who wears an Avalanche sweater.

They better be prepared to skate all the time, or they can go play somewhere else.

Parise has done that. He has done it repeatedly since coming to Denver. It’s why he has been on the Avs’ second line and continues to be trusted in key scenarios. Add in the fact that he’ll turn 40 in two months, and you start to see why his teammates want him to stay.

“Any superstar that you see in those older years, they just manage the game the right way,” Duhaime said. “They think the game better than anyone else. Let’s say they physically lose a step or lose a little bit of speed, they make up for with their mind. Not saying that Zach’s lost a step, because he looks faster than ever.”

Parise admitted he has had moments when he stops to appreciate what he’s doing at this stage of his career. One of those came when he opened the playoffs on the first line with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

“I thought, this is incredible!” Parise said. “I am playing on the top line with the Colorado Avalanche … something I never thought would happen. To hear teammates talk like that, it means a lot.”

Realizing he can still perform at this level, has Parise thought about reconsidering his decision to retire?

“I mean, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t times,” Parise said. “It’s just the excitement of winning a playoff round or it never changes with that excitement when you score a goal. You think, ‘I can still do it. I kinda want to keep doing it.’ But I feel like I’m at the point that now just mentally going through another 82 games would be really hard.”

But?

“Never say never,” Parise smiled. “Right now, I think that’s kind of the direction I’m thinking.”

Parise laughed when he was asked whether he’s at peace with that decision, because it seems like he could be swayed.

“I thought I was at peace with it last year!” Parise said. “It was also different, coming off what I thought was a good year. I felt great. It’s also been hard being away from the family. That’s tough being away from the kids. But to put a percentage on it, you’re talking upper 90s.”

Parise spoke with ESPN the day before the Avalanche lost Game 4. He said if the Avs won the Stanley Cup this season, he wouldn’t even consider coming back.

But if this season ends with a loss in the second round, the conference finals or the Cup finals, does he know for certain that he’ll be done?

“I think this is it,” Parise said. “I’m very content with it.”

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