June 26, 2004
NHL Entry Draft Notebook
Separated at Salmon Arm
Two talented teammates head different directions in the WCHA

By Nate Ewell and Mike Eidelbes

RALEIGH, N.C. – Travis Zajac and Kris Chucko, linemates with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the BCHL and first-round selections of New Jersey and Calgary, respectively, know that having each other as teammates helped their standing in the NHL Draft. Not only did their skills complement each other, but having two top prospects on one team helped lure scouts to Salmon Arm.

"It was a very good thing," Chucko said. "Both of us helped each other. And if either of us were playing on our own, I don't think we would have done as well."

The pair were inseperable in many scouts' minds – with independent skills, obviously, but each was hard to consider without looking at the other. That was further evidenced by their draft positions, with just three players separating the two of them. Zajac, in fact, was answering a question about Chucko when Calgary called his left wing to the podium.

Their ties are about to be severed, however, and in a big way. They'll play for rivals in the WCHA this season, with Zajac headed to North Dakota and Chucko going to Minnesota.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," Chucko said. "The rivalry has already started with lots of talk. It'll be a good battle next year for sure, and we play them right at the beginning of the year."

At that, Zajac, who was within earshot in the interview room, turned and jabbed his former linemate. "And North Dakota will win," he said.


The universal consensus was that North Dakota's program won't miss a beat with the departure of head coach Dean Blais to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

No less of an authority than former Providence coach and current New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello showed his support for the Sioux by trading up to take a North Dakota player for the second year in a row. Last year he moved up to grab Zach Parise at 17; this year he nabbed Zajac at 20.

"It's a great program," Lamoriello said, "and that's not going to change. They have a lot of great supporting players who can help [Zajac] grow."

Zajac, who was recruited primarily by Sioux interim head coach Dave Hakstol, reaffirmed his commitment to the Sioux despite Blais' departure.

"It doesn't make a big difference to me," he said. "I don't think the coach matters. They've got two capable guys there."

Left wing Drew Stafford, while shocked by the news, agreed with Zajac's assessment.

"It’s definitely a surprise," he said. "I got a call from Dave Hakstol…he told me about it before the media knew about it. The type of team that we have and the tradition that we have…it’s just really, really successful.

“We have him and Brad Berry there…they’re two great coaches. I’m looking forward to seeing how the year goes.”

As for Stafford's future with the Sioux, he said he's in no rush to leave.

“I’m taking it on a season-by-season basis," he said. "If I’m not ready to step in and play right away, there’s no way I’m going to be leaving because I’d rather be playing for North Dakota.”


The New York media can't get enough of a good story, as Irene Silva, Al Montoya's mother, discovered.

• What did a former Cornell Big Red goalie have to do with a Minnesota guy getting taken ahead of a Wolverine? Plenty, according to Phoenix Coyotes managing partner Wayne Gretzky.

"Probably our best young prospect is a goaltender in [David] LeNeveu," Gretzky explained, when asked why his team didn't take Al Montoya instead of Blake Wheeler. "We feel very comfortable that he'll be the goaltender of the future for the Phoenix Coyotes.

• Among the prominent college players who are still waiting to hear their names called (with their rankings among North American skaters by Central Scouting): Notre Dame's Wes O'Neill (23rd), Ferris State's Chris Zarb (37th), Brown's Brian Ihnacak (44th), Yale's Blair Yaworski (47th) and Maine's Mike Lundin (54th).

• Northern Michigan's Darin Olver, depite being ranked 120th among North American skaters in the final Central Scouting list, was taken in the second round, 36th overall, by the New York Rangers. Olver's coach and longtime family friend, Walt Kyle – who Olver says "may even be my godfather" – is a former assistant coach with the Rangers.

"I didn't have a great year, but I felt, and Walt felt that [my ranking] was a bit far-fetched," Olver said.

Don Maloney, the Rangers' assistant general manager, agreed.

"We love that kid," Maloney said. "He’s very, very competitive, he’s smart…a playmaking center is hard to find. This guy is a very good hockey player.”

• Many wondered what Michigan State's A.J. Thelen would have done had the NCAA not passed an opt-in waiver for the 2004 draft. In the end, the waiver appears to have saved the Spartans their top defenseman.

"Definitely," Thelen said, when asked if he would have opted in regardless of the ruling. "Just the way my family felt and I felt and the situation I was in and how well I did over the year, it just felt like the right time to do it.”

• Drew Stafford, a Buffalo draft pick, said he may have to be nicer to fellow Sabres selection Thomas Vanek – at least in the future.

"If I see him now, I’ll have to talk to him a little more. But if he’s playing with the Gophers, he’s still a Gopher.”

• Tod Button, the director of amateur scouting for Calgary, was thrilled to pick up Chucko in the first round: "He can score, he's gritty, and after watching him in the playoffs, you need the type of player who can score in the paint while he's being tugged on, and he can do that."

• The Ottawa Senators, who had been shopping center Radek Bonk on the trade market, sent him to the Los Angeles Kings for the third-round pick that they used to select Clarkson-bound left wing Shawn Weller.

"My advisor said to me and my parents, 'This guy must be pretty good, they just traded Radek Bonk for him,'" Weller said. "Then they called my name." 

• Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal, the team's first round pick a year ago, was in town for the proceedings. "My stomach feels a lot better now than it did a year ago," Staal said.


We spotted a St. Lawrence jersey in the crowd, but extra credit to the three Michigan State jerseys worn by Scott Kingsley and his family in section 128. Kingsley is a Spartan grad now living in Raleigh; his son Robbie had an MSU sweater on, while sons Will and Drew wore Canes jerseys. Their favorite players, of course, are Rod Brind'Amour and Cane prospect Brad Fast.

Speaking of sweaters in the crowd, it's safe to say that Carolina fans appreciate the work of Clarkson alum Erik Cole, whose No. 26 was everywhere.

Since we're in the home of the franchise formerly known as the Whale, would it be too much to ask to hear a few bars of "Brass Bonanza"?

The nasty weather outside reminded us of, well, a hurricane. If it wasn't for breakfast at Waffle House and a steady stream of NASCAR commercials, we might have forgotten that we were in the South entirely.

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