Arizona Rubber

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Scottsdale’s Larraza making most of his time in the AHL

 

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While American Hockey League (AHL) rosters are stocked with players hailing from traditional hockey-playing regions of North America, elite players from less conspicuous areas are also vying to make the jump to the NHL.

San Diego Gulls forward Zac Larraza represents Arizona.

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The 23-year-old Scottsdale native received a call-up from the Gulls’ ECHL affiliate, the Utah Grizzlies, on Oct. 28 and has appeared in 10 games with the AHL team. Larraza has put his time with the Gulls to good use by tallying three goals and one assist as of early January.

He tallied the game-winning goal in a 4-0 win over the visiting San Jose Barracuda on Nov. 19.

“I was happy to see the clock hit zero,” he offered with a smile.

“The guys who we have called up from our affiliate in Utah we’re looking for them to help out and contribute,” Gulls coach Dallas Eakins explained. “That’s their big opportunity to make a name for themselves and show what they can do.”

This is Larraza’s second stint with the Gulls, the AHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks. He appeared in 12 games with San Diego last season with one goal and three assists to his credit.

His goal is the same as any of his AHL teammates: make the NHL.

“It’s every kid’s dream who starts out playing hockey,” he said. “This past season, I was pretty happy to take the next step. I just want to keep developing and hoping to take the next step in a year or two years, three years – whatever it takes.”

Larraza is a product of the arrival of the Coyotes in the Valley of the Sun 20 years ago. The presence of an NHL team immediately generated interest in the sport and did much to expand ice hockey-playing opportunities in the region, especially for youth.

USA Hockey player registration has more than tripled since the Coyotes’ inaugural 1996-97 season.

Larraza laced up his first skates at the Ice Den Scottsdale.

“My dad is from Detroit – he got me started pretty early and my mom is a pretty avid sports fan, so they both got me into sports, especially hockey, growing up,” Larraza said.

He admits it was not easy being a hockey player in Arizona.

“Growing up, I was told all the time by other kids in the area, ‘Why are you still playing hockey because you’re not going to go anywhere?’” he recounted. “But it’s starting to grow and become a hot hockey market and I’m excited to see it develop that way.”

He didn’t listen to any of the naysayers.

At 16, Larraza made the jump to the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. There he played on Under-17 and Under-18 National Teams.

The hometown Coyotes drafted him in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft (196th overall). Larraza then elected to pursue a college hockey career with the University of Denver, but did not sign with the Coyotes after graduation.

His four years with the Pioneers proved productive – 35 goals, 66 points and 117 penalty minutes.

His first professional season was a whirlwind. He played in 39 games for the Manchester Monarchs of the ECHL, recording 20 goals and 30 points. He also played for three AHL teams: the Portland Pirates (two games with one assist), Milwaukee Admirals (10 games with two goals and three points) and the Gulls.

He faced off the 2016-17 season by recording a goal and assist in two games with the Grizzlies.

“It’s fun to be in San Diego,” he said. “The competition is pretty heavy. The guys are a lot bigger, a lot faster and stronger. Just developing, getting stronger and faster every game will help me in the future.”

Photo/Eric J. Fowler

— Phillip Brents