Rookie finds spot on Bruins blueline

The list is long and illustrious, dotted with names like Rob Zamuner, Valeri Zelepukin, Henrik Zetterberg and Alexei Zhitnik.

And of course, who can ever forget the unforgettable Zarley Zalapski.

Big league players, they all had the added distinction of having a surname that started with Z.

Jesse Zgraggen would one day like to join that elite pantheon of alphabet-enders. He would one day like to be mentioned in the same breath as Rick Zombo (652 NHL games) and Doug Zmolek (467).

Now 10 games into a Western Hockey League career with the Chilliwack Bruins, the 18-year-old seems to be on the right track. But the road ahead is long and fraught with frustration.

It’s a well known fact that people with last names ending with the letters U through Z face an uphill battle from the start.

“I was almost always right at the back for everything,” Zgraggen admitted. “When we got report cards, the bell would ring and everyone would be running out of the class and I’d still be sitting there waiting.”

A hex on those whose names begin with A!

The Zgraggen name worked against young Jesse in more ways than one. People had trouble pronouncing it, failing to grasp the nuances of its Swiss origin.

“One time we were playing a game and I scored a goal,” Zgraggen recalled. “The PA announcer was announcing the goal and looked at my name and said, ‘Scored by Jesse.’ He didn’t even try.”

For the record folks, it’s Ze-Grag-en.

Thankfully for Prospera Centre PA announcer Dave Mawhinney, he hasn’t had to call that name an awful lot.

No goals.

No assists.

Nine penalty minutes (seven on home ice).

Zgraggen’s game has been quiet so far, which is just fine for a young guy trying to find his way as a WHL rookie.

“I’m a stay-at-home defenceman all the way, a guy who makes good decisions and makes a good first pass,” Zgraggen said. “I’m not the fastest or most agile guy, and I don’t have the best hands, so I focus mostly on being dependable defensively.”

Every Bruins player sets personal goals prior to the season. Zgraggen’s list is modest.

He wants to play as much as possible, and he’ll be happy if he hits six points by year’s end.

On the first point he’s doing pretty well, playing in eight of nine games so far. Injuries suck, but a concussion suffered by Tyler Stahl has opened the door for the kid to show what he can do.

On the second point, it’s very much a work in progress.

“So far I’ve got the big zero, but I scored a bunch of goals back in novice and peewee,” Zgraggen laughed. “In bantam AAA I had two. In midget I had 11 and last year I had four (with the AJHL’s Brooks Bandits).”

So… Brandon Manning’s spot as power play quarterback is safe, for the moment.

But we need only look to another Bruins veteran to see where an unheralded defence-first blueliner may have the opportunity to be the hero.

Picture Oct. 1, 2008 as Chilliwack and Spokane battled through 65 minutes of regulation and overtime.

The teams remained tied through seven shootout rounds, and that’s when then-Bruins head coach Jim Hiller sent his secret weapon over the boards.

Jeff Einhorn skated to centre ice, stared down Chiefs goalie James Reid, then beat him clean to give Chilliwack the win.

Perhaps such a moment could be in Zgraggen’s future?

“If that ever happened, I think most people would think I would shoot,” the Lethbridge native said. “So what I’d probably do was go fake shot-forehand-backhand. It seems to work well in practice, but I think we’ve got some guys around here who can put the puck away better than me.”

Nevertheless, the Bruins are undoubtedly happy to have him, and Zgraggen is happy to have chosen Chilliwack over two other options.

“I had training camp invites from Chilliwack, Vancouver and Prince George,” he said. “I looked at the rosters and tried to figure out where I had the best chance of sticking around. So far, my choice looks pretty good.”

Zgraggen and company continue a three-game trip through the Rockies, visiting the Calgary Hitmen tonight, the Medicine Hat Tigers tomorrow and the Kootenay Ice on Tuesday.

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