Photo credit: Garrett James Photography
Ask anyone who is lucky enough to do it, and they will tell you that getting to play junior hockey in their hometown is one of the most special experiences a young hockey player can ask for.
The majority of players have to leave home at a young age to pursue their hockey dreams, but for those that get the chance to stay home, they savour every minute of it.
Merritt Centennials defenceman Talon Zakall is no different. The 19-year-old is just a few days away from wrapping up his third season in the BCHL, having spent it all with his hometown Centennials.
“It’s been incredible,” said Zakall. “As a kid growing up, you watch those guys and idolize them. Just to be there as a 16-year-old was phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m just super grateful for the opportunity in Merritt.”
Zakall’s early years were spent playing within the Merritt Minor Hockey Association, but in order to take the next step to advance his hockey career, he needed to move on.
He played a handful of games at the BC U18 level for the Thompson Blazers in 2016-17, but found a home the following year with the Yale Hockey Academy Elite 15s.
Yale, which is located in Abbotsford, B.C., was the perfect fit for Zakall and allowed him to further grow his game.
“It really helped me develop as a player,” he said. “It gave me a lot of confidence. Yale as a program is just phenomenal top to bottom. They have a great coaching staff. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Zakall was the highest-scoring defenceman on that team, putting up 26 points in 35 games. He would only spend that one season at Yale because the BCHL came calling and he could not say no to suiting up for his hometown Centennials.
Coming in as a 16-year-old, it should be no surprise that Zakall only played a limited role in his rookie season. He did manage 10 points in 45 games, no small feat for such a young defenceman in the league, but beyond the points, that was a very significant year for him.
“My coaches the first year in the BCHL with Merritt, Joe Martin and Brandon Shaw, they were huge for me,” said Zakall. “They brought me in as a young kid and taught me a lot about the BCHL and how to grow as a young player in the league.”
Using the knowledge and experience he gained in his rookie season, Zakall was able to to flourish in his second year in the league. He led all Centennials blueliners in 2019-20 with 29 points in 56 games, good enough to land in the top-20 among all BCHL defencemen.
“I think I just got more of an opportunity as I went on,” he said. “It helped me slowly gain confidence. That confidence has been huge for me. My first year, I kind of got my feet underneath me, and my second year I came into my own. Now, I just want to help the younger guys along, help them develop and get some other guys scholarships here. That’s the goal.”
Speaking of scholarships, Zakall was able to secure his own in December when he announced his commitment to Dartmouth College.
Zakall has always exceled in the classroom. He proved that when he was named the BCHL High School Player of the Month in November 2019.
Dartmouth College is an Ivy League school known for its academics. Hockey is obviously very important to Zakall, but it falls behind education on his list of priorities.
“Education is important in the BCHL in general,” said Zakall. “School comes first. Everyone is trying to move on to the next level and play Division I hockey, but even then, it’s to go to school and get a good education. School has to be first. Hockey is definitely a top priority, but schooling has to be number one.”
There is no guarantee, but Zakall says he will likely be back in Merritt next year rather than head off to college to start is NCAA career. An extra year of junior hockey will allow him to develop his game even more and make sure he is prepared to make the jump when the time comes to move on.
“I just need to grow defensively a little bit more,” he said. “I think I’m mostly known for my offensive game and being able to make good passes up the ice and put our forwards in good spots. I need to make sure I’m playing a good two-way game and playing well in all zones. It’s a huge step to the NCAA and you have to make sure you’re ready for it.”