Five years ago, Zach Aston-Reese was standing at a crossroads.
He was one of the Top 100 amateur hockey players in the country. He had made a name for himself in the United States Hockey League as the centerpiece of the Lincoln Stars, and he had a buzz around him going into the 2012 NHL Draft.
But when draft day came and went and his phone didn’t ring, he had to step back and reevaluate things.
He had just graduated from Lincoln Southeast High School in Nebraska and already committed to Northeastern, where Huskies coach Jim Madigan was eager to have him be a part of the program he was rebuilding. But Aston-Reese also still had ties to the Lincoln Stars with the option to put school on hold and play another year of junior hockey.
He also still saw a future for himself in the NHL.
He had all the time in the world, but he knew how critical it was to use it wisely.
He decided to completely reshape his routines to fully dedicate himself to becoming the player he wanted to be.
“Instead of sleeping in until noon or 11, I’d get up early to go get breakfast, go to the rink, shoot pucks for 30 minutes, go in the gym and ride the bike, stretch out, work my forearms out, just do some technical stuff,” he said. “All that little preparation each and every day, when you stick to it, you really do start to notice results.”
That attention to detail and commitment has been a part of Aston-Reese’s DNA since he arrived at Northeastern in 2013, and it’s become a part of the fabric of a Huskies team trying to repeat as Hockey East champions. The league tournament begins this weekend.
“I’m not the only one who comes in early,” Aston-Reese said. “There’s been eight or nine guys that come in and are always doing extra stuff and it definitely shows.”
After helping the Huskies win their first Hockey East title since 1988 last season, repeating the feat and making a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament has driven Aston-Reese and the Huskies this season.
“His preparation and his consistency each and every day, he goes through the same routine each and every day getting himself ready,” Madigan said. “It’s that ongoing preparation that, quite frankly, it’s a professional mentality in the consistency in which he goes about doing it. It’s not fancy or flashy, it’s just going through the daily routine each and every day.”
The numbers show just how much Aston-Reese has left his fingerprints on the Huskies program. In 141 career games, he’s put up 144 points. He’s tied for 14th in career scoring. He’s the 15th player in program history to reach 55 points in a season and needs just one more point to become just the ninth player to reach 60.
But to Madigan, the numbers don’t do justice to the all-around impact Aston-Reese has as a bona fide 200-foot player.
“If you measure Zach Aston-Reese by stats, you’re doing a disservice to the player and you’re doing a disservice to yourself in your evaluation process,” said Madigan, who spent 18 years in the NHL as a scout for the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Madigan practically loses his breath running down all of Aston-Reese’s attributes.
“He does all the little things well,” Madigan said. “He’s very good defensively, he gets pucks out of his own back zone, great on the backcheck and back pressure. He’s always moving his feet. He’s a very smart offensive player. He’s always on the right side of the puck defensively, so his positioning is always very good and those are things that don’t show up on the stat line.”
When Aston-Reese surveys the NHL landscape to see where he fits in, he knows how valuable his skill set can be.
“You look at championship teams, look at the Penguins last year, they have guys like Nick Bonino and [Bryan] Rust and four or five guys that can play responsibly, they can chip in goals, they can shut down opposing teams’ first line, and coaches don’t really have to worry about them defensively and they can provide that secondary scoring,” Aston-Reese said. “Those are kind of the guys that every team’s looking for. That’s kind of just my motivation, developing that all-around thing.”
A year ago, Aston-Reese solidified himself as one of the country’s top college free agents when he led Northeastern with 43 points. He’s taken that to new heights this season, leading the nation with 59 points (29 goals, 30 assists), carving out a spot as a Hobey Baker Award candidate along with earning national college player of the month honors for February.
As much as he’s aware of all the possibilities the future may hold, he isn’t distracted by them.
“Honestly, it does sound a little bit harder than it actually is,” he said. “It’s not too hard to tune that stuff out. I’m trying to live in the moment and when you’re coming to the rink every day and practicing, I’m at the rink for two or three hours a day and taking care of my schoolwork, there’s enough things to do to keep my mind off that.”
The little things haven’t changed for Aston-Reese. If anything, from the time he committed to paying painstaking attention to them, they’ve become more important.
“That’s kind of when I started to become an all-around hockey player,” he said. “That led me to where I am today.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.