Like many prospects, Zach Pochiro has traveled a most interesting hockey road map, one that currently has the 20-year-old center in a position where he can try to thrive during his third WHL season with the Prince George Cougars.
And if things go according to his plans, “full circle” might very well become the operative phrase for the engaging 6’2”, 175-pound forward. While Las Vegas is listed as his hometown, Pochiro confirmed during an interview with Hockey’s Future that he was born in St. Louis, MO.
“My parents both worked in riverboat gambling in St. Louis,” Pochiro said. “When the work kind of slowed down, I guess they decided that gambling was something they knew well, so they moved to Vegas. I was only about a year old.
“My dad ended up opening a furniture store and a boxing gym. My mom is a blackjack dealer at the Wynn Casino.”
Fast forward about a couple of decades and Pochiro is skating in the WHL, coincidentally as a signed prospect of the St. Louis Blues. The entry-level deal was made official during the second half of last season, on March 19th. When the Cougars’ season came to an end, Pochiro returned home to Vegas. But little did he know that soon enough, he’d be traveling again.
On the road again…
“We didn’t make the playoffs last year, so I just went home and after a couple of days, I got called up to the Kalamazoo Wings in the ECHL,” Pochiro said. “I played about nine games there. After that I got called up to the AHL and was a black ace up there during the playoffs. After we got eliminated, I was back home for a couple of months.
“Then I decided to go to St. Louis a little earlier, to train and to try to put on some weight and just to be visible there. I was there for about a month before we headed off to Traverse City for the prospects tournament, then on to main camp with the Blues. I was there about a week and a half, then I got sent to Chicago of the AHL, then sent to the Alaska Aces in the ECHL. I was there for about two months.”
The adventure in Alaska was certainly different for Pochiro.
“It’s a big rock up north,” Pochiro laughed. “You know, it’s similar to Prince George, just that it’s on the ocean. I liked it a lot, because it’s kind of like PG, the only difference is they don’t get much sunlight in the winter, maybe about three hours a day. That part I didn’t like. Being from Vegas where it’s 70-degrees and sunny all winter. That was a big change.”
Then the call came. Pochiro was assigned to the Cougars. His arrival left the Cats with four 20-year-olds, but the league maximum is three overage players. With Prince George getting good contributions from Chance Braid and Jari Ericcson, the odd-man out was goaltender Jared Rathjen. For his part, Pochiro was ecstatic to be back with the Cougars.
A new Ice Age…
“It’s a whole new ice age,” Pochiro said, with reference to the team’s new slogan that surfaced during the off-season when the team was sold by previous owner, Rick Brodsky. “We have great owners that really take care of us. We have a new gym facility and new locker room. We’ve got people in the stands. The town supports us now.
“I remember my first couple of years, we’d go around town and there would be people yelling at us, yelling about our owner. We’re looking at them, like, there’s nothing we can do; we just play the game. But now people seem intrigued when they see us, they’re happier and they’re supportive. It’s way better now and I’m really happy to be here.”
Through 12 games in Prince George this season, Pochiro has scored five times and added eight assists. Last season in 63 games, he scored 27 times and added 39 assists while collecting 123 penalty minutes.
It was a boon for the Cougars to see Pochiro arrive back in Prince George, a veteran presence with offensive skills. According to head coach Mark Holick, having signed an entry-level contract with the Blues, Pochiro’s presence in the dressing room can be beneficial as the youngsters can learn from him.
“We didn’t expect Pochiro back,” Holick said. “Then we had four 20’s. We weren’t prepared to part with Braid or Ericcson at that point. So getting Zach back was kind of like found money, you know. He’s been positive here and good in the room.”
Holick, who has always been forthright with Hockey’s Future during a coaching career through the AJHL, BCHL, WHL and AHL, doesn’t mince words when he speaks of expectations and accountability.
“Well, I think your 20 year olds have to be your best players,” he said. “I mean, if you’re not getting production out of your 20’s, then what’s the point? You might as well play the young kids and get them some more minutes. The 20’s have to be contributors.
“Zach has got the contract, but now you have to go out and earn the big money. He doesn’t just want minor league money. He wants to play in the National Hockey League. That’s what everybody dreams about and that’s what they strive for. He’s made a step in the right direction. He’s got a contract. Zach has made money playing the game.
“We expect leadership from him. Our young guys can look at Zach and see where they can get to. Hey, the young guys in our room all want to be pros. Zach is a guy they can certainly look up to.”
According to Pochiro, he feels like he “gets it”. He wants to make the best of this opportunity.
“Mark has really emphasized that he wants me to be a leader,” Pochiro said. “We have good team, but we’re young. At times during games, you see guys get down and flustered. That’s when they need someone to lead and take control.
“So, that’s something I’ve really been trying to work on, trying to push these guys in the right direction. In games, you just can’t take five minutes off because before you know, you’ve been scored on two or three times.
“I think we’ve taken some steps in the right direction by beating some of the big teams like Kelowna and Everett. I think a lot of the guys know now that we can really hang with these teams.”
Indeed, the Cougars are an improved hockey team this season, although they head into the Christmas break in the schedule on a three-game losing streak. Prince George has won 17 games so far. Last year, the Cats were 45 games into the regular season schedule before they counted their 17th victory.
“Our younger guys are lights out,” Holick said. “Our 1997 group and our 1998 guys coming up, I like where we’re headed. I knew there would be some pains, but we’re way ahead of last year. We don’t just want to win 30 games, we want to win 40-plus.”
Pochiro speaks highly of his experiences growing up in Las Vegas. While certainly not a hockey hotbed, those in the region who are keen on playing the game have almost become pioneers of sorts in recent years.
“We had one team growing up and it was a good core group of kids,” Pochiro said. “There were 13 of us and before we had four lines, it was perfect. We really stuck together. We had to travel everywhere, to Arizona, Utah or California. When we got older we started flying to Chicago and Detroit and New York.”
As a youngster, Pochiro played with the Las Vegas Outlaws, then into midget hockey, it was the Nevada Stars. He says there were a couple of hockey rinks in the city, one at the Santa Fe Casino, but that has since shut down. According to Pochiro, the Las Vegas Ice Centre was built about 10 years ago and there are two sheets there. And then there’s the rink built about six years ago at the Fiesta Hotel in north Las Vegas.
“My dad was a huge Thunder fan, he loved going to Thunder games.” Pochiro said when asked if he watched much of the minor league professional hockey in Vegas while growing up. “That was a lot of fun. It was good hockey.”
After a year of midget hockey, Pochiro moved on to the NAHL and played 52 games with the Wichita Falls Wildcats in Texas. The team was owned by Rick Brodsky, who also owned the Prince George Cougars.
“They knew I always talked about playing in the WHL,” Pochiro said. “I was doing real well there in Texas, so the Cougars listed me and it ended up working out.”
“It was definitely hard at first, playing that many games,” Pochiro said when asked about the WHL’s 72-game schedule. “I think the WHL is the best league in the world if you want to go pro and make something of your career. It’s hard on your body, but it gets you ready for pro hockey like no other league. That being said, if you want to play in the NHL, the WHL is where you want to be.”
Pochiro is not the only current player in the WHL with roots in Las Vegas. Gage Quinney, who Pochiro says is a close friend, is a 19-year-old who was recently traded to the Kelowna Rockets by the Prince Albert Raiders. And forward Chris Francis played 292 games with the Portland Winterhawks between 2006 and 2010, then returned home and played four seasons with the Las Vegas Wranglers in the ECHL.
A NHL destination…
The city of Las Vegas has been in the news of late as there have been discussions that suggest a NHL expansion team may be in the works. Pochiro is a hockey fan for certain, but is unsure a pro hockey team is the right fit.
“Well, I’m not really sure that they can,” Pochiro said when asked if the city can support a NHL team. “Nobody really knows hockey out there. I think you’d see a sell-out every blue moon.
“Now, I think Vegas deserves a pro team, but I just don’t think it should be hockey. It should be baseball, basketball or football; something that the town really knows. If Vegas gets a NHL team and don’t support it, I don’t think they will get another pro team. The town wants a team. They want a pro team. But I think it has to be the right sport for Vegas.”
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51