Zach Parise thought it was a prank.
Sports Illustrated does not call 17-year-old hockey players. The magazine's glossy finish has long been reserved for Michael Jordan, Brett Favre and Wayne Gretzky, for crying out loud.
"The lady called and said she was from Sports Illustrated," Parise said. "I asked her if she was joking."
She was serious. Parise, a senior at Shattuck-St. Mary's, a private school in Faribault, Minn., was to be featured in the
"Faces in the Crowd" section after dominating a prestigious tournament in Calgary.
It gets better.
A different SI feature simultaneously coveted Parise. A week after being a Face in the Crowd, he had a full page as the Old Spice Athlete of the Month. (This one was in the swimsuit issue, in case you missed it.)
Teammates and friends endlessly tease him about being SI's new golden boy. Parise is more likely to blush than puff out his chest. He is remarkably humble despite these gaudy statistics: 69 goals and 93 assists in 58 games this season, heading into the Midget AAA national tournament, which begins today in Colorado Springs.
Long before the national acclaim, Minnesotan youth hockey followers were talking about him in simple, declarative sentences. He skates hard. He has tremendous hands. He has an unmatched inner drive. Give him some space to breathe - both on and off the ice - and he could be the best player the state has produced.
The only knock on him is that at 5-11, 170 pounds, he does not have prototypical NHL size. But remember, he is only 17 and growing.
"Without getting too goo-goo about it, he's a coach's dream," Shattuck head coach Tom Ward said. "From my era, the only guy I can really compare him to is Neal Broten."
Zach Parise has a life most people only experience when their eyes are closed.
Jean-Paul (J.P.) Parise, his dad, moved the family from Bloomington to Faribault when Zach entered Shattuck in sixth grade. J.P., a former North Stars captain and coach, became the school's hockey director and oversees the school's eight hockey teams - six for the boys, two for the girls. The academic and hockey standards are equally high.
The Midget AAA team, equivalent to a Junior "A" team, plays a national schedule and has yearly trips overseas. The team has won two of the past three national titles and goes into this year's tournament with a record of 49-4-6. About three-quarters of the players on this year's Midget AAA squad eventually will play Division I college hockey. Parise signed with North Dakota and will play there in the fall. Linemate Brady Murray - son of ex-Shattuck and current Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray - will join him in 2003. Tyler Hirsch, his other linemate, will play for the Gophers
On a recent sunny afternoon, J.P. and Zach Parise led a tour of the Shattuck campus. The school, with an enrollment of about 300 students in grades 6-12, has its own ice arena. Each of the eight teams practices every day.
The drama class is learning how to execute a fight scene. "Hey Zach, check this out," a classmate shouts. Soon after, there is a smacking sound and the classmate's victim falls onto a mat. Parise already has taken that class, as well as "Dance for Athletes." Of course, there also are typical college prep classes - with an atypical average class size of about 14 students.
A combination of academic and hockey paradise is found at the bottom of deep pockets. Tuition for boarding students at Shattuck is about $25,000 a year. The hockey fee is an additional $3,000.
Superstar sons of the hockey director get a discount.
"Free," J.P. Parise said.
It can't possibly get much better, and Zach knows it. "I have everything I want here," he said. "I have a key to the
rink. I can skate whenever I want."
The frozen tundra
Zach Parise is expected to save North Dakota hockey.
It sounds funny to say a program one year removed from the NCAA title game needs a rebirth, but so it goes at the hockey-crazed school. UND opened its $100 million arena with a .500 team this season. Parise is expected to lead a young group that quickly will bring the program back to the top.
"I get e-mails from UND fans all the time," Ward said. "They think he's going to save the program. I've talked to coach [Dean] Blais about it. They need to find a way to get some of the pressure off of him, to let him be himself."
Parise does not seem fazed by much, but he also acknowledges things will be different. Shattuck, with old stone buildings and heavy wooden doors, looks like a castle. There literally is not a moat to keep out intruders, just a figurative one.
"It's going to be hard to adjust," said Parise, who took his official visit to UND when the school opened its new ice palace in October. "There were 12,000 people there for warmups. It was an unforgettable experience."
Donna Parise, Zach's mom, works for Shattuck's board of directors. She does not talk about the Hall of Fame bust some think already should be carved for her son.
"My baby," Donna said.
Yes, but . . .
Zach Parise cannot top this:
Legend has it that Marlon Brando, while attending Shattuck more than 60 years ago, became so annoyed with the clock tower ringing every morning at 5 that he scaled the tower, removed the bell's clapper, lugged it down and buried it in an adjacent field.
"I've never done that," Parise said.
But he can bury the puck.
His extended hockey family does not want to jinx him. When pressed, however, they refuse to put a ceiling on his projected career. The potential for college hockey excellence, NHL stardom and a place among the hockey greats is there.
The tournament that sparked Sports Illustrated's interest in him was Mac's Major Midget AAA. Parise had 29 points in seven games and was named MVP for the second consecutive year. Almost 200 eventual NHL players have played in the tournament in its 24-year history. Scott Gomez. Petr Nedved. Mike Modano. Dany Heatley.
"I'd say he's definitely the best to ever play here, yes," tournament organizer Carl Archibald told the Calgary Sun.
Can Zach Parise equal the pro careers of those players? Perhaps part of the answer lies with his father, who already had his time in the NHL spotlight.
J.P. was raised in Smooth Rock Falls, Ont., a small hockey town that had an indoor arena with natural ice six months of the year. He talked about the values he was raised with, the ones that took him to the NHL: work ethic, preparation and winning little battles.
His favorite catchphrase, though, was this: Maximizing your skill. He said it so many times that the words seemed to
materialize in mid-air.
And who in the room has the most skill to maximize?
The elder Parise looked down, chuckled, then looked back up. Amidst a backdrop of well-worn NHL jerseys from 976 games played, J.P. jerked his thumb in the direction of the 17-year-old kid sitting next to him.
"He's way past me," J.P. said.
And still going.