Hayes channels experience in new role with Illinois
December 10, 2019
Starting college is a huge step in anyone’s life. It’s the first time you’ve moved away from home, with no parents in sight. It’s the chance to be independent and make your own decisions. It’s the next big step after high school graduation. But for Illini hockey’s freshman forward Zach Hayes, his path to college is a bit different: It feels like a homecoming.
Sporting a five o’clock shadow and a chain, Hayes doesn’t look like the typical freshman. At age 21, Hayes has seen the world more than most, making future study abroad students envious.
“I played two years in the Candian League and Ontario League,” Hayes said. “Living in the French area was so different. It was cold.”
Born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Bartlett, Hayes grew up loving hockey. Watching professionals from an early age, Hayes was inspired to give it a try.
“I went to a hockey game with my dad when I was really, really young,” Hayes recalled. “He put me into skates, and I’ve played ever since I was three.”
Excelling at the high school level, Hayes had the luxury of having the chance to play at a higher level. Hayes took his talents over to the Hawkeye state, earning a spot on the North Iowa Buffs. Despite playing only one season with his new team, Hayes got comfortable with the team early, scoring 25 points for the team and leading them to the playoffs.
After the season, Hayes left the team and briefly played for the Minnesota Iron Rangers. At age 18, the year most high school students start getting ready for college, Hayes took a different route: He took his skills across our northern border to prove he could play in the most hockey-crazed country.
Hayes played a season and a half with the Cochrane Crunch hockey club, where he honed his skills as an all-around forward. After playing just 17 games in his first year with the team, Hayes exploded in his second year, where he got the chance to play a full season. With 55 games under his belt, Hayes registered 15 goals and 25 assists, making him a dangerous player who can get others involved, a trait he has since carried over to Champaign.
At the end of the season, Hayes was done living out of the country. He decided to move back home and accept an offer to play for the flagship school in his home state. His standout play was not left behind.
While Hayes started the season quietly, he has erupted onto the scene as the Illini started to get hot once again, scoring five goals during the Illini’s 5-1 stretch. He’s still continuing to rack up the assists, too, which ranks him fifth among his team. Hayes, who has clearly adjusted well back in the states, credits his success to his Canadian experience.
“It developed me a lot,” Hayes said about his year and a half in Canada. “If I went to Illinois out of high school, I wouldn’t be the player I am right now.”
Hayes has also loved the campus life that comes with the University while still having to put time aside for academics, which was one of the things that stood out when he select the school. Currently majoring in recreation, sports and tourism, Hayes hopes that he can transfer into the Gies College of Business or the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where he would major in economics or financial planning. But Hayes has enjoyed his homecoming, something that is unusual to most when going off to college.
“I love the college life so far,” Hayes said about Illinois. “The academics are so good here and I enjoy living close to home again. I haven’t been close to home since I was 17-18 years (old).”
Only being a freshman, Hayes can continue to grow and develop as one of the best players on the Illini roster. Also, with the possibility of being granted a Division One program, Hayes has the chance to lead the Illini into a new chapter against the best college programs in the nation. When asked about what kind of role hockey will play in his future, Hayes said he is currently focused on the present.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Hayes said. “The next three or four years, I’m not gonna put all of my marbles in one place. I’m not just gonna wait around and wait for something to happen.”
Whether or not Hayes continues to take his talents to the next level, one thing is for sure: the Illini have a great piece to build a program around.