BOSTON — Zach Sanford had Jan. 17 circled on his calendar.
The night he would finally play his first NHL game at TD Garden.
Months after he lost his dad at the young age of 54, the local kid who went from Pinkerton Academy to Boston College to the NHL would play against the Bruins at the home of the Beanpot.
Now, thanks to a collision with Casey Cizikas of the Islanders in Brooklyn Tuesday night, that Garden PRO debut is on hold until next season.
“Obviously I was looking forward to it,” Sanford said after skating with his team Thursday morning prior to Thursday night’s game. “This is my third year pro now, I missed the last two; I was pretty pumped up to play here tonight. To have something like that happen, it (stinks) but that’s how the game goes and hopefully there will be many more games to be played here.”
Sanford, drafted by Washington in the second round and then traded in the Kevin Shattenkirk deal, missed last year’s road game against the Bruins because of a separated shoulder and that game was part of the Blues’ dads’ trip. Mike Sanford, Zach’s father, was invited but never got to see his son play in an NHL game, passing away during this season’s training camp.
Asked how many people he would have had at Thursday’s game, the younger Sanford said, “I don’t know the exact number — I think a few people backed out, but I had my whole family, a bunch of friends were coming down, they were all excited to watch me play but like I said things happen and there’s always next year.”
With the team in town Wednesday, Sanford was able to have dinner with “my mom, sister, a couple of my buddies,” adding, “It was nice to get home for a little bit and be able to spend some time with them and kind of catch up.”
Entering concussion protocol, Sanford spent much of his time during the skate on his own, just skating back and forth and handling the puck. He did participate in some line drills and said he felt good afterward, ready to get back as soon as he continues to prove he belongs in the NHL.
“There’s still a lot of work for me to do and a lot of areas in my game I want to better,” he said, “but in the past stretch of maybe five or six games I think I’ve really started to take my game up a level and be able to compete and show that I can play here and show that I belong here. I felt good. I felt strong and the team’s been playing well (3-0-1 in the last four, 4-1-1 in the last six before Thursday) which helps a lot and obviously playing with (Ryan) O’Reilly and (David) Perron, two really good players, that definitely helps a lot too.”
Sanford, 24, has five goals and six assists and is a plus-4 in 30 games this season. He had a five-game points streak, including his first three-point game, from Oct. 20-Nov. 1. But there was a trip to the minors after that, a recall and solid play, amid a slew of St. Louis injuries and the firing of coach Mike Yeo.
“He went down to the minors and played a few games and played really well,” said interim Blues coach Craig Berube. “He’s come back up and he’s been a really good player. He’s a real smart player, he’s got good size (6-4, 207) and he’s got a real good stick and that’s his game. And he’s moving his feet good right now. As long as he’s moving his feet, he’s a smart player and he’s got a good stick.”
Berube recognized how tough it had to be for his young player to sit out Thursday’s game, saying, “... It’s too bad what happened.”
Wednesday, the day after hitting his head against the boards (one can tell he wasn’t thrilled with no penalty being called), Sanford said, “I’m feeling OK. There’s a lot of protocol and stuff that goes on when you hit your head like that. So I’m kinda just rolling with it. We’re going through all the steps and jumping through the hoops. Who knows? Hopefully I’ll be able to be back soon.”
Thursday, he said, “We’re just trying to check all the boxes and makes sure I’m good to go.”
Talking about his time growing up and playing hockey in New Hampshire, and of something that stands out, Sanford said, “My greatest Manchester memory? Hockey-wise? Ahhh, just a lot of friends made, a lot of good coaches (including his dad), a lot of state championships and good runs in youth hockey and stuff like that.
“A lot of the guys I played with growing up, I’m still friends with. Not every guy can say that. It’s just nice for me to be able to still have those friends that I grew up playing hockey with and going to school with. And still being able to stay close with them.”