Zak Justice had found his groove.
The jack-of-all-trades had become a fixture in the Rochester Grizzlies’ lineup, having found a comfort level doing whatever his coaches asked him to do, and doing it well.
Justice was in the midst of an eight-game stretch where he averaged a point per game -- a stretch where he produced nearly half of his season total of 17 points.
Then an upper-body injury derailed his first season of junior hockey in late January.
Justice, a Bemidji native, had to watch from the bleachers for a month as his Grizzlies teammates finished a job that he’d help them start: Winning the franchise’s first North American 3 Hockey League Central Division championship.
But that time away from the ice only served as motivation for Justice, who turned his frustration into a positive.
“I’m feeling good, I’m ready to go,” Justice said over the weekend, as 88 players gathered at the Rochester Recreation Center for the Grizzlies main tryout camp, with the hopes of making the team’s 2020-21 roster. “I had a bad side injury that took me out, but I kind of took it as, my offseason just started earlier than everyone else. I got that healed up and I’m ready to go.”
The versatility that the 5-feet-10, 180-pound Justice displayed last season not only impressed his coaches and teammates, but other coaches around the league -- and at higher levels. Justice was invited to a handful of North American Hockey League team camps this summer and though he didn’t land a roster spot with them, he’s on the NAHL’s radar.
“I went to one in Wichita and one in Corpus Christi (Texas),” he said. “They went well, but I just wasn’t what they were looking for, so I’m fortunate to be be back here.
“Those camps kind of helped me get back in shape. It’s one thing to go out and run and work out. It’s another to be in hockey shape.”
Justice is among a group of veterans the Grizzlies coaches are expecting to be team leaders throughout training camp, which begins in a week. Rochester will have nearly a month to ramp up toward the start of the NA3HL season, which is currently scheduled to begin on Oct. 2.
“Just like last year they’re going to have to step up and carry the load at the beginning, until the younger guys get adjusted to junior hockey,” Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. “(The veterans) will have to help those guys learn along the way. That’s what we expect out of them every year. It’s part of taking that next step. They come, they learn, then they lead, then they leave … that’s the goal, to move them on.”
The Grizzlies won 37 games last season, finishing 37-8-2 overall, before having their postseason wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic just as the first round of the playoffs was set to start.
“I think, the only thing that’s on our minds is that unfinished business,” Justice said. “We had a really good season last year, but we definitely have some business we want to handle this year and that’s going to be our mindset going into the season.”
The Grizzlies’ main tryout camp wrapped up Sunday with a competitive All-Star Game, and while their roster isn’t set for the season -- some players will move up and down as NAHL and USHL teams set their rosters in the coming weeks -- the Grizzlies appear to have a group that can again be among the best in the NA3HL.
“This is like coming back home,” Justice said. “Coming in here last year as a new guy, the guys took me in and it was like a family, so whatever new players we have, we’ll take them into our family and go from there.”