Whirlwind month for Hayes

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Prince Albert Raiders captain Zack Hayes lands a punch on Winnipeg Ice forward Jackson Leppard during a game at the Art Hauser Centre in December.

Raiders captain signs AHL contract after junior hockey career comes to an early end

Prince Albert Raiders captain Zack Hayes has gone through all sorts of emotions during the last few weeks.

After finding out that his final campaign in the Western Hockey League would come to an early end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 20-year-old blueliner from Calgary signed his first pro contract on Monday as he’ll be playing for the Vegas Golden Knights’ new American Hockey League affiliate franchise in Henderson, Nev. next year.

“It’s been a real roller coaster,” Hayes said. “I’ve gone from knowing that the WHL season is over and that I’ll never wear a Raiders jersey in another game, to the excitement that comes with knowing where I’ll be spending next season.”

Hayes had been in contact with the Golden Knights and a couple of other teams in regards to AHL deals over the last couple of months but was planning to wait until the end of the WHL playoffs to see if any National Hockey League contracts came along.

“That obviously changed once the season ended early, but I was able to find a good situation with Vegas,” Hayes said. “It allows me to get my foot in the door and prove myself to hopefully earn that NHL deal.

“The Golden Knights organization are straight shooters like the Raiders are. They tell you how it is and they don’t sugarcoat anything. I’ve heard nothing but good things from (former Raiders teammate) Brayden (Pachal) and other guys that I know about the organization.”

Before he came back to Prince Albert for his overage season, Hayes got a long look at the Anaheim Ducks training camp and suited up in pre-season games for the San Diego Gulls.

“That was a great opportunity for me in Anaheim,” Hayes said. “I got to learn a lot about the pro lifestyle and what it takes to make it to the next level.

“Since this is probably going to be one of the longest off-seasons that I’ve had in a little while, I’m going to be spending a lot of time training for what’s ahead next season. I’ve already started the work on making my game better for when we get back out on the ice.”

A ninth round pick by the Raiders in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, Hayes recorded 79 points in 272 regular season games for the club, in addition to five points in 30 post-season contests.

“After your rookie year, you think that it (the time in the league) is going to go by slowly, but everything just goes by faster and before you know it, you are out of the league,” Hayes said.

“We went from a team that people made fun of in my first year to being WHL champions in my third year. It was great to do that with a lot of the guys that went through those tough times and I think the team is in great hands going forward. Our coaches have taught us what it takes to be winners and the veteran guys are going to do an awesome job of keeping that winning culture going.”

In addition to hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup last May at the Art Hauser Centre, another memorable moment for Hayes came on March 19, 2016 at the SaskTel Centre as he made his WHL debut against the archrival Saskatoon Blades.

“I remember warmups and seeing my parents up in the second bowl,” Hayes said. “They didn’t know that I was going to be playing until that day and there weren’t many tickets left in the lower bowl when they tried to get some.

“I ended up being on the ice for the Blades’ third goal (which was scored by Nikita Soshnin) and that put me at -1 for the night, but I was just trying to live in the moment and enjoy the experience. It lit a fire under me for the next season to try and make the team as a 17-year-old…and I ended up staying in Prince Albert for the next four years.”

Although his playing days with the Raiders have come to an end, Hayes’ was quick to point out that the experiences that came with playing for the people of Prince Albert is something that he won’t soon forget.

“The support that we got for all four years that I was here was unbelievable,” Hayes said.

“I know that other teams hate coming up to play in our barn and our fans are the best in the WHL.”