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Six Degrees of Zach Aston-Reese

Mar 15, 2024
Written By: Mark Newman

The NHL veteran looks to make the right connections while helping the Griffins reach the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2019.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

It's often said that the hockey world is small, that you can find connections anywhere; sort of the sport's version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which is based on the notion that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else if you look.

It's a concept familiar to most New Yorkers, who know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody else. With 8.8 million people spread across the city's five boroughs, the notion that no man is an island is evident every day.

Zach Aston-Reese grew up on Staten Island, the smallest of New York's boroughs, and he frequently traveled past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island with the huddled masses on the Staten Island Ferry with his father, William, who worked in financial services.

"My dad worked in the city while I went to high school in Jersey City," Aston-Reese recalled. "So when I was in high school, I'd take the ferry with my dad in the morning. We'd take the subway up to the World Trade Center and then I would get on the PATH train to Exchange Place in Jersey City and walk to school from there."

By his teens, Zach was already used to navigating the city on his own. His parents had instilled an independent streak in their kids and all three were smart enough to fend for themselves.

His mom, Carolyn, had started a custom embroidery business called Wicked Stitches with her friend, Nancy Nix, when Zach was still a pre-teen and already busy with a Staten Island Advance paper route that he started when he was in the fifth grade. He also was already consumed by the sport of hockey.

"I played in a house league on Staten Island, but sometimes I played in the city at Chelsea Piers," he said. "When I started playing travel hockey, it was mainly on Staten Island."

Zach became obsessed with hockey when his brother, William, who was four years older, started playing the sport.

"Everything he did, I wanted to do," he said of his brother, who is now a teacher, as is their sister. "Whenever he practiced, I was always at the rink when I was little with a stick and a tennis ball, asking my parents for a dollar so I could get something from the candy machine.

"My brother was definitely someone I looked up to as a kid, and I always wanted to be like him and be better than him at whatever he did."

William played hockey at Wagner College on Staten Island, but Zach had his sights set farther afield. At age 15, he started playing Junior B for the New Jersey Rockets. "We practiced out of the Devils' practice rink at the Prudential Center and I started doing off-ice workouts there all the time. I remember thinking at the time, 'Wow, it would be so cool to be a pro.'"

That's when Zach experienced his own Six Degrees moment.

"My second year there, I moved to Junior A and my coach in New Jersey was always looking to send guys to the USHL, OHL, or Team USA, so he had a lot of connections," he said. "It's hilarious because I went to Lincoln in the USHL because one of their players threw his helmet at somebody and got suspended. They needed a guy and I was that guy."

The suspended player? Griffins veteran Dominik Shine.

"So I went, and I think I scored on my first or second shift, then had a couple of good games, and they just kept me. And there was no looking back from there. I think I was ready for it. I did hockey camps when I was younger, so I was totally good with being independent, being on my own, and all that good stuff."

Aston-Reese spent two-and-a-half years in Lincoln before enrolling at Northeastern University. "I had committed to Brown, but my relationship there was with Jerry Keefe, who ended up going to Northeastern, where he is now the head coach," he said.

He was smart enough to be recruited by Brown University, an Ivy League school, but he knew switching to Northeastern was the intelligent decision. "Brown doesn't give out athletic scholarships so my grades didn't get me any money, unfortunately," he said. "I visited Northeastern in the summer with my mom and I couldn't have fallen more in love with the campus."

Northeastern is located in the center of Boston. You would be wrong to assume that moving to the most populous city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be no big deal for a kid from Staten Island, since he was coming to Beantown from Lincoln, not New York City.

"Going from the country life in Nebraska to Boston was very hard," he said. "Life in Lincoln was great, everything had slowed down for me. It was just a different lifestyle, like you could stop and smell the roses."

He admits that he had second thoughts. "I remember I had a call with my dad, probably two weeks into being in Boston. I said, 'This is so hard here.' And he was like, 'Put on your big boy pants – this is where you're at.' And then I had a good cry and never turned back."

Aston-Reese blossomed in Boston. During his junior year, the Huskies won the Hockey East Tournament championship. In his final year, 2016-17, he was named to the Hockey East First All-Star Team, a First Team All-American, and the Hockey East Player of the Year. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award given annually to the top NCAA men's ice hockey player.

"We had 11 players in our freshman class because the school was trying to make a big culture shift that year, so we had a tight, close-knit group of guys," he said. "We lived in the dorms together, so it was like we were in our own little world. It was just a good experience."

Pursuing a graphic design degree, Aston-Reese enrolled in summer semesters to fulfill all his college requirements while playing hockey. "My last year, I was able to get my art classes into one block so I could spend more time at the rink, and the extra workouts helped me get everything dialed in.

"We had a good strength coach, Dan Boothby, whose workouts weren't easy. He pushed us very hard. You kinda dreaded his workouts where guys would be throwing up and stuff. There were a couple of times when my muscles wanted to stop working – I was on the verge of tears."

As an undrafted player, he was free to sign wherever he wished. He ended up inking a contract with Pittsburgh because the Penguins organization had a good track record of developing players who were late-round draft picks or were undrafted out of college.

"They didn't lie to me and say I was going to play in the NHL," he said. "They said you're going to learn how to play pro hockey the right way and that's exactly what happened."

He joined the Penguins' AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, for the remainder of the 2016-17 season, then started the following year in the minors before making his NHL debut on Feb. 3, 2018 in New Jersey against the Devils.

"That was crazy – I almost wish it had been somewhere else," he said. "My parents would have been able to go wherever, but there were so many other people there that it was a little hectic and unsettling. I almost would have rather had just my family there and everyone else watched on TV."

Even so, parts of the game remain etched into his memory.

"I remember my first shift was the tail end of a power play, and I got the puck two feet away from the goalie. I just panicked and took a slapshot right into his glove. If I had just faked and gone to my backhand, I would have had an empty net."

Ten days later, he experienced redemption. He recorded his first two NHL goals in a 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators. Sidney Crosby, widely regarded as one of the greatest ice hockey players ever, assisted on both goals.

"I can't say enough good things about Crosby, a world-class guy off the ice. Whether you've played 1,000 games or zero games, he's very good at making you feel included, which goes a long way when a guy that good and well-known in hockey does something for a guy like myself.

"After the game, Crosby gave me his game stick and signed it, "First of many." So I have that stick in my room with the stick that I scored the goals with, so that's something cool that I'll have forever.

"At the end of the COVID year, we went to Kiawah Island for a golf trip with the guys, and at the start of the next season, there was a piece of grass from the course we played, a pin and a group picture of all guys. It's the little things that mean a lot."

His first couple of years in Pittsburgh were tough, physically speaking. He aggravated a shoulder in practice, suffered a broken jaw in the playoffs, and then a broken hand the next season. He confesses he was starting to feel jinxed.

"I had some crazy injuries," he said. "I had an oblique avulsion, which is where part of your oblique muscle detaches from your pelvis. I definitely threw myself a pity party at certain points.

"After a while, I realized I just had to put in more work. Instead of blaming everyone else, I had to figure out how to better myself – treatments, diet – to make sure it didn't keep happening. I still indulge sometimes, but for the most part, I'm pretty dialed in. I still have the little bumps and bruises, but nothing that would sideline me like when I started."

Aston-Reese finally was able to solidify his spot as a bottom-six forward by becoming a reliable player known for his defensive play and penalty kill abilities who was able to chip in the odd point at critical junctures.

His first playoff point, for example, was an assist on a goal by former Griffins forward Riley Sheahan in the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. "Sometimes it's little plays that matter the most in the NHL," he said. "Guys are more skilled and polished at the NHL level, that you make a mistake and those guys are going to make you pay."

After a couple of years where he was up and down between the NHL and AHL, he stuck with the Penguins all of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons. Having appeared in 52 games during the 2021-22 season, he was on pace to set a career-high for games played when he was shocked to learn that he was being dealt to Anaheim at the NHL trade deadline.

"I had just gotten home from a walk with my dog when a call came from the GM. My heart sank. 'Hey, we're going to trade you to Anaheim.' I was shaking because it had never happened to me and Pittsburgh had been my home for the last five or six years."

Even so, he was determined to make the most of the opportunity. "Anaheim didn't have the greatest record, but they had a good group of guys and I had a great time. The atmosphere is different there, almost like [people] don't care, but the California lifestyle is great."

He started last season in Toronto's training camp on a professional tryout, which was a new experience for him. "I had a good feeling that I'd be able to earn a spot there," he said. "When I got there, the coach told me, 'Every time you played us, you were a pain to play against, you play physical,' so they kinda told me their expectations."

Playing in a media center like Toronto, where the city has endured a 55-season championship drought, brings a certain amount of pressure, but Aston-Reese did his best to avoid the spotlight, keep his head down, and just play.

"Right away, guys like [Auston] Matthews, [Mitch] Marner, and [John] Tavares went out of their way to make me feel comfortable, so it wasn't too hard of a transition. I kept my mouth shut. I didn't want to be known as the loudmouth American."

Aston-Reese ended up playing a career-high 77 games, contributing a career-high 10 goals even though he only saw about 10 minutes of ice time a night. He ignored the outside noise and kept his focus.

"I don't have Twitter, so I don't have to pay attention to the keyboard warriors who find their voice there. It's something I learned in Pittsburgh. I knew if I had a bad game, I didn't need to check my phone and see everyone telling me I had a bad game, too.

"In Toronto, there would be 15 people every day in the media scrums after practice. I kept my mouth shut and I tried to work hard, so they were nice to me. Luckily in the role I had, I did not have to deal with all that stuff."

Playing on the Maple Leafs' fourth line, Aston-Reese led the Toronto team in hits during the 2022-23 season. He would have liked to have stayed in Toronto another season but the organization decided to go in a different direction.

At age 29, Aston-Reese was looking for an opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup contender, so he decided to go to the Carolina Hurricanes' training camp on a professional tryout, as he had done in Toronto.

"I knew it would be risky," he said. "There were a couple of other interested teams but Carolina's been pretty dominant the last couple of years, so I was like, 'I'm going to roll the dice. If I have a good camp and make the team, I have a better chance at the ultimate goal of any hockey player – to win the Stanley Cup.'

"I thought I had a good training camp, but, unfortunately, they had their roster already filled, and they don't have an AHL team now, so it didn't work out. But Detroit had a spot, and I was like, 'I don't want to wait around. I need work.'"

Now reunited in Grand Rapids with Shine, his old teammate and friend from Lincoln, Aston-Reese is making the most of the situation.

"I don't think I'll ever accept that this is where I'm going to be for the rest of my career, that it's now my job to mentor the young guys, and this is where my story ends. Personally I won't accept that, but I also want to be a good teammate.

"I know I'm an older guy with experience, so I have no problem being a guy who leads by example and shows the young guys how hard you have to work. I'll try to pick them up when they're going through something, whether it's being a healthy scratch, not playing as much as they would like, or whatever."

He admits that he struggled to find his place early in the season, when he had one goal in his first 14 games with the Griffins. "I don't know if I was trying to do too much, or I was in a little bit of a mental pretzel. 'Why am I not scoring goals right now?' Maybe it was some voodoo. Maybe someone had a Griffins doll and they were just poking it."

He is relieved that the team has finally found its footing and has been able to string together a number of wins. He knows the success of the team will help his goal of getting back up to the NHL. "I'm going to keep working to stay sharp," he said. "If you think about other things too much, it'll drive you crazy.

"Sometimes it's just a numbers game and you're the piece a team needs. For now, I'm doing my best to make the most of my situation here and be one of the pieces that helps this team win."