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Canisius baseball player Jake Zurat gets new chance on the ice

Jake Zurat was certain his hockey career had ended after high school. The former Williamsville North goalie even gave his worn pads to a friend.

After all, he figured he’d have no need for a set of used goalie equipment. He was going to Canisius and was joining the baseball program in the fall of 2017 as a freshman catcher.

Nearly 18 months later, Zurat went on a desperate search for those pads when the Canisius men's hockey team found itself in a bind with only one healthy goalie. Ten days ago, he played in a game.

Zurat is in his third week as the Canisius third-string goalie, behind Blake Weyrick and Tucker Weppner. Canisius hosts Sacred Heart on Friday and Saturday at HarborCenter, and coach Trevor Large plans to have Zurat available to play until at least Christmas.

“I thought I was done,” Zurat said Saturday after Canisius lost 9-6 at Niagara. “I thought I was going to play a little pickup hockey for fun. But now I’m playing Division I hockey.”

Filling a void

The Golden Griffins started the season with a vacancy in goal. Daniel Urbani, Canisius’ anticipated No. 1 goalie entering the season, has yet to play a game due to an unspecified injury.

Weyrick and Weppner split the starts in Canisius’ first nine games, but when Weyrick sustained an injury at the end of October, that left Weppner as Canisius’ lone goalie. The Atlantic Hockey Association requires two goalies to dress for a game, meaning the Golden Griffins couldn’t play without a backup.

Large scrambled to find a goalie with substantial playing experience.

First, he looked at Canisius’ club hockey team. None of the goalies’ academic schedules corresponded with the Golden Griffins’ midday practices.

Then, he looked within the athletic department and found a sophomore catcher on the baseball team.

“What you do, is you find out from whoever you can on campus, who’s been a goalie before and at what level,” Large said. “We did a little bit of research and we found Jake.”

Zurat got a call from Canisius baseball coach Matt Mazurek on Nov. 4, telling him there may be a chance he could join the hockey team. But Mazurek didn’t force the decision upon Zurat.

He asked Zurat to take some time to ponder three questions: Do you want to join the hockey team as a goalie? Do you have goalie gear? How will this affect you personally, physically and academically?

“(Large) did his groundwork first and I said, ‘Alright, let’s not get Jake involved yet,’ ” Mazurek said. “He got my blessing, but my big concern was knowing if and that Jake wanted to do this. Jake isn’t going to say no. But I wanted to make sure he was mentally ready for this.”

Then, Large called and gave Zurat the formal opportunity to join the hockey team. A day later, Zurat practiced with the Golden Griffins for the first time.

Right place, right time

Zurat wasn’t supposed to go to Canisius. He planned to join the University at Buffalo baseball team as a walk-on, but UB dropped its baseball program less than a month after Zurat made 13 saves in Williamsville North’s 3-2 win against Pittsford in the 2017 Class A hockey championship game at HarborCenter.

Williamsville North hockey coach Bob Rosen offered Zurat an opportunity to play junior hockey for a couple of years, and then try to play college hockey.

Zurat wins goaltending duel for Williamsville North

“He was going to find a way to play baseball,” Rosen said. “I told him, if something doesn’t work out, I’ll help you find a junior team. It was one conversation, and then the opportunity came for him to play baseball at Canisius.”

Rosen, a former Canisius player and coach, had no idea his former goalie would become a two-sport college athlete.

“It speaks to the character of Trevor, to give a kid of that character that opportunity,” Rosen said. “It speaks so highly of Trevor, and of Jake going in and doing it.”

Before he hit the ice, Zurat had to make a phone call. He had to find the goalie equipment that was stashed away at a friend’s house. But there was one problem.

Zurat's friend had a new set of goalie equipment. The orange and black goalie pads, in particular, were an issue.

“Coach came up to me and told me, ‘We have gear for you, and you can’t be wearing that RIT stuff,’ ” Zurat said, referring to Canisius’ Atlantic Hockey rival, which has orange among its school colors. “Yeah, I’m going to take the gear that they give me.”

Fortunately, a set of goalie equipment awaited Zurat when he joined the team.

Zurat also is training with the baseball team, compartmentalizing his schedule to fit hockey practices with baseball workouts and classes.

“After hockey practice, I rush over to baseball, get my lifts in, get hitting in,” Zurat said. “If I have to catch (in) the bullpen, I’ll catch the bullpen. Baseball’s still No. 1.”

Zurat was a reserve catcher with the Golden Griffins last season. In five games, he had one hit in four at-bats and seven defensive putouts.

'Luckily, that didn't go in'

The tap on the shoulder came late in the third period as the Golden Griffins led Clarkson 6-3 on Nov. 10 at HarborCenter. Zurat entered the game with 1:09 left after Weppner had made 30 saves.

Clarkson pulled its goalie for a sixth skater, and Zurat made three saves in his college hockey debut.

His first save was the most nerve-wracking, but Zurat relied on the fundamentals to get the job done. In the HarborCenter stands, the Canisius baseball team waved signs, slapped the glass and howled for their teammate.

“Luckily, that didn’t go in,” Zurat said, with a wry chuckle. “I got my body in front of it, and made the save.”

He was ensconced at the end of the bench in Canisius’ 9-6 loss Saturday at Niagara. There was no cheering section. Zurat only got onto the ice during pregame warm-ups and each time Canisius left for the locker room, sporting a black helmet and navy blue and yellow goalie pads.

But because of an unexpected second chance, Zurat has quickly embraced hockey again.

“The speed’s a lot faster,” Zurat said. “The shots are a lot faster. The release is a lot faster. At the end of the day, it’s hockey. You’re playing a game that everyone loves.

“I still love the game. I was just gifted enough to get another couple weeks with it.”

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