Nolan Zajac, David Carle follow family history to Frozen Four

Nolan Zajac, a veteran of 159 NCAA career games, will finally make his Frozen Four debut April 7. His three older brothers previously combined to skate in six Frozen Four contests. (Photo by Michelle Jay/Along the Boards)
Nolan Zajac, David Carle follow family history to Frozen Four
Al Daniel

David Carle’s businesslike approach is such that he resists savoring the anecdotal garnish he and his team have helped to create so far in 2015-16.

The third-year Denver Pioneers assistant coach and former student-coach is bound for his first Frozen Four at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. That means his first involvement in a game at the home of his brother, minute-munching NHL rearguard Matt Carle’s, longtime employer. Not to mention, the home of the team that made him an honorary pick after a heart condition abruptly cut off his playing endeavors prior to the 2008 NHL Draft.

As long as there is another game to prepare for, those tidbits take the trunk in his vehicle.

“It could be in Seattle, for all I care,” Carle said in a phone interview with Along the Boards.

“If it was played in Philadelphia or Chicago, it would be just as special,” he added matter-of-factly. “The venue and the connection, it just happened to be a coincidence.”

But he had enough charity to humor the human-interest hankerings of his inquisitor by allowing, “Does it make for a better storyline? Yes.”

Carle simply wants to do his part to pen the tale that the Denver faithful has yearned for over the past decade. When the Pioneers meet North Dakota next Thursday evening, it will be their first Frozen Four faceoff since the elder Carle was a collegian 11 years ago.

“We both pride ourselves on trying to get to Frozen Fours and put banners up in our buildings,” said the younger Carle of the contesting clubs. “When we play each other, it’s never going to be a meaningless game, and this is going to be another great chapter.”

One that will not avoid evoking a previous chapter, even if the bulk of the acknowledgment is left to the audience and detached narrators.

Surname symmetry

Facing none other than North Dakota, the 2004-05 Pioneers defended their national title with a 4-1 victory in that year’s championship bout. In doing that, they matched UND’s second-best all-time count of seven national titles. Only Michigan boasts more banners, with nine to its credit.

But neither program has been back to the title game since. North Dakota has ventured to six more semifinals, including three with the help of brothers Travis and Darcy Zajac. But the artist formerly known as the Fighting Sioux last played on an April Saturday when Denver repressed Travis Zajac and company.

The youngest of the four Zajac brothers, Nolan, seeks to prolong that futility for the newly christened Fighting Hawks. The senior blueliner was 12 years old when his oldest sibling supplied UND’s only goal in its 2005 shortcoming.

He is now nearly twice that age as he pilots the Denver defense back to the national semifinals. For him, this comes after three previous NCAA regionals yielded a 1-3 record and no Promised Land passports.

“It just shows how hard it is to get to the Frozen Four,” he told ATB.

A reality that one might not think would strike the mind of a Zajac so easily. The aforementioned Travis brought UND back to college hockey’s closing weekend as a sophomore in 2005-06, leading the team with 29 assists on the year.

The first-line center tallied a goal and two assists in the eventual 6-5 semifinal loss to Boston College. He would subsequently forego the second half of his NCAA eligibility, signing with the New Jersey Devils that offseason.

The BC Eagles would likewise terminate Darcy’s freshman and sophomore campaigns in a 2007 and 2008 NCAA semifinal rematch. UND did not return to that platform until year after Darcy graduated.

In 2012, Kelly Zajac partook in a landmark phase of the Union Dutchmen’s rise to prominence. The starting center led his team with 34 assists in his senior campaign, which culminated in Union’s first Frozen Four experience. His college career would end with a 3-1 semifinal loss to Ferris State.

The youngest Zajac was apt to note that Union on that foundation en route to the 2014 championship, albeit two years too late for his brother.

“All of my brothers have made it to the Frozen Four,” Nolan said. “Hopefully, I’ll be the one to bring it all the way home. They could never finish it off. I kind of want to learn from those a little bit.”

Of his Denver team, particularly himself and his fellow seniors, he added, “We’re hoping that we don’t need to take that step where we have to lose to know how to win.”

Papa Pioneer

The Zajacs’ father, Tom, had a delectable Denver career in his own right. Per the Internet Hockey Database, he turned in back-to-back 33-point campaigns as a junior and senior.

But in terms of group glory, the future patriarch of the Zajac hockey factory ran into a bout of ill fortune. When he enrolled in 1973, the Pioneers were coming off a loss to Wisconsin in the preceding NCAA championship. They had just been to three consecutive national semifinals and five in the previous six years.

However, they would not reach that stage again until 1986, then went another 18 years before finally winning the title in 2004. That undoubtedly emboldens Nolan’s energy when he speaks of the team’s collective desire to achieve fulfillment for the university’s alumni.

“He’s pretty pumped right now to watch these games,” he said of his father, who will be in attendance next week. “I know my brothers are happy for me, too. I’m not sure who exactly they’re going to be rooting for, but I think they’re just looking forward to some good games.”

Unfinished business
As a specialist in defensive tutelage, Carle has worked closely with Zajac since returning to his alma mater at midseason in 2013-14. It is therefore easy to believe the former when he insists that the latter set family pride aside in this past weekend’s West Regional.

“Our players don’t think about stuff like that,” Carle said. “We were focused on our process because our whole team has the same desire.

“Ultimately, we wanted to get back to the Frozen Four.”

Carle also maintained that the two have not reminisced on the last time their bloodlines were simultaneously represented at that stage. Although, in terms of opposing North Dakota yet again, he offered, “I guess when you look at it, it’s fairly fitting.”

But even while taking a mental breather to delve into his dense family history when pressed, the youngest Zajac kept his head on a swivel, tilting toward the present and immediate future. He reaffirmed his status as a determined Denver senior at the climax of his career.

“It’s awesome to get there,” he said. “But we still have a long way to go.”

Al Daniel

Along the Boards' NCAA editor, Al is an alumnus of Shattuck-St. Mary's and Providence College. His work has previously appeared in the Faribault Daily News, Let's Play Hockey, Access North GA, Beyond the Dashers, the Pawtucket Times, USCHO, USA Hockey Magazine and Bleacher Report.

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