Ten years on the road is a long time for anybody.
For Chicago Wolves defenseman Zach Miskovic, that odyssey began when he was still in high school.
Along the way, Miskovic played junior hockey, earned a college education, skated with Alex Ovechkin and won a Calder Cup championship.
Now, at the ripe old age of 27, the road scholar is back home.
Miskovic signed a free-agent contract with the Wolves last August. He has been a role player for much of the season, but with the NHL lockout now over, he figures to see more ice time, possibly beginning this weekend in Abbotsford.
However it turns out, Miskovic is happy to be in his own backyard again.
“It was a long off-season,” he said after a practice this week at the Triphahn Ice Arena in Hoffman Estates. “I was not sure where I was going to be playing because of the hesitation with the NHL and the lockout. I had some opportunities, and my agent was able to make some connections here with Wendell (general manager Young).
“Being the local team, hometown for me, was a great option. I'm more than excited to be back in Chicago playing. It's been 10 years since I've been back. I was 16-17 years old. Obviously, the family's really excited. I am, as well. It's nice to be able to see some friendly faces in the stands.”
Miskovic is a native of West suburban River Forest, and he left Oak Park-River Forest High School to play junior hockey for Cedar Rapids in the 2002-03 season. Before that, he played youth hockey in the Chicago area, and he can recall each stop there, too.
“You want it all the way down the line?” he asked. “I can do it for you.”
Miskovic quickly ticked off names familiar to any longtime hockey parent in the Chicago area: Eagles, Chicago Hawks, Flames in Glen Ellyn, Chicago Chill.
Some of those clubs, he wryly noted, no longer exist.
Somewhere in an elite athlete's career, it becomes apparent the talent is there for that athlete to keep ascending.
“Oh, my gosh, I was told all my life I was a late bloomer,” he said. “It took me awhile. Obviously, a lot of hard work. I was always this tall, skinny kid who had to work on getting stronger and work on that all the time.
“It was about when I was 17 and trying out for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. It was then that I knew I wanted to play and that they had confidence in me that I could play at that level. That's when I really started to thrive as a player and wanted more, and to make sure I could give everything I've got to make it to the next level.”
Miskovic played three years in Iowa before a four-year college career at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, where he earned a double major in mathematics and fine art in addition to playing hockey.
“To be able to go in as a freshman and have such a successful year, I was seen by the Washington Capitals, and they invited me out to their rookie camp,” he said. “They kept in contact with me throughout my four years. By my senior year, I had a few options. They were the ones I decided to ultimately go with.”
“It's definitely a fine experience to go up there and skate with some of the superstars you grew up watching or I was in school watching. You're stepping on the ice with Ovechkin, (Nicklas) Backstrom, (Alexender) Semin. They're high-caliber players, and you've got to realize you can play with them as well.”
Miskovic played three seasons with Hershey, the Caps' American Hockey League affiliate, winning the Calder Cup in 2009-10.
But after three years, it was time for a change. Enter the Wolves.
GM Young and senior adviser Gene Ubriaco were familiar with Miskovic from his days with AHL-rival Hershey and his Chicago ties.
“He fits what we need,” Young said. “He's in great shape. He's a great kid. As the GM of Hershey said, he's the guy you want as your neighbor. He's a great team guy.”
Playing time has been sporadic for Miskovic as the Wolves try to develop young defensemen for the parent Vancouver Canucks. He has played in only 14 of the team's 32 games, picking up 2 goals and an assist. One of those goals was an overtime game-winner at Allstate Arena.
“It was outstanding,” he said. “Family and friends were in the stands. It was a great feeling to get that goal and to just know that my parents were in the stands watching and celebrating.”
Even with the lack of playing time, Miskovic has remained positive, much to the delight of head coach Scott Arniel.
“We needed him for depth, just because of exactly what's happening here now,” Arniel said. “In the last month or so, we've had a lot of injuries, and he's had to play a larger role. Miskie's a good professional. He keeps himself I great shape. He's got a great demeanor, a great attitude, works hard at practices. When he gets into the games, he responds and gives us good minutes.”
At 27 (he turns 28 in May), Miskovic isn't “old,” but he's no longer a kid by hockey standards. Still, the dream of bigger things and a shot at the NHL still tugs at him.
“I'm in the middle,” he said with a knowing laugh. “I'm older when you look at the ages on our team right now for the Wolves. But I'm excited to be playing and doing what I love. Obviously, I still have that dream and I still want to succeed at it to play at the NHL level. That's the best league in the world. I think that if you ask anybody on this team, that's what they want to do, as well.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.