There are not many hockey players from Hawaii who have reached the professional ranks of the sport. Zach Pamaylaon is thankful that he is one of the few who can say he made it.
“I was just fortunate enough to be there at the right place, at the right time to where I got an opportunity to play at a higher level,” he said in a phone interview last week.
The 2014 Aiea High School alum completed his first year of professional hockey with the Danbury Hat Tricks of the Federal Prospects Hockey League this season. He was part of the team that won the FPHL Commissioner’s Cup Playoffs in five games over the Carolina Thunderbirds.
“It almost felt like it wasn’t real. It was just shocking,” Pamaylaon said. “I remember asking one of my teammates if this was actually happening.”
Danbury came back from a 2-0 series deficit to win the final three games of the best-of-five series over Carolina. Pamaylaon’s only goal of the postseason came in Game 4 of the series and it ended up being the game-winning goal that helped Danbury force the deciding Game 5, which was eventually won in overtime by the Hat Tricks.
“I feel like (both teams) played very well to that point with a lot of passion. … it was very hard-nosed and there was a lot of chippiness going on,” Pamaylaon said. “But being down 2-0, I felt like with the group that we had all season, the mentality going into the game was a no-brainer, regardless of how many we needed to win. We always had confidence that we’re going to win.”
Much of the team mentality was prioritizing the success of the team, according to Pamaylaon.
In the regular season, Danbury went 44-7-5 and Pamaylaon — who normally plays forward — played mostly as a defenseman for the Hat Tricks despite having never played the position outside of his cousin’s men’s league team.
“We all bought in and at times had to sacrifice personal success for team success,” Pamaylaon later wrote in a text message. “It was all worth it and I’d do anything for my brothers (on the team).”
It’s something that’s been instilled in the 27-year-old for much of his life.
Zach Pamaylaon’s hockey origin story begins with his father Aaron, who took up the sport after seeing people play roller hockey on a basketball court one day while he was training for a bodybuilding contest.
Aaron still plays hockey today and remembers Zach sitting in his lap as a baby watching hockey games with him. “He really loved hockey and before he even started playing hockey, he had a hockey stick in his hand,” Aaron said.
“By the time he was walking, he would walk around like he was skating. He’d have the stick with him everywhere he’d go. We’d go in a mall, and he’d be weaving in and out of people with a stick in his hand.”
Zach started playing hockey at the age of 3 and within a year of playing, “started progressing faster than all the other kids,” according to Aaron. When Zach scored his first goal, Aaron recalled his father-in-law giving Zach $20 and telling him that he would give his grandson money every time he scored a goal.
“Within that first year, it went from $20 a goal to $5 because he scored so many goals,” Aaron said.
As high volume of a goal-scorer as his son was, Aaron — who also coached Zach up until junior hockey — wanted Zach to help his teammates grow. As a result, Zach became more of a playmaking forward, a trait he still possesses today.
“Zach possesses a lot of speed; he’s a very intelligent hockey player,” said Doug Jones, who scouts the West Coast for Danbury. “He doesn’t overcommit, doesn’t make many mistakes. As a rookie, I was very impressed with his sound abilities and the fact that he reads and reacts to the play very well.”
James Smith remembers a time when Zach Pamaylaon “was a kid that was just raw talent.” Smith was introduced to the Pamaylaons through an old teammate of his — Aiea’s Grant Matsushita — and played with Zach in a men’s league at the Ice Palace.
“He had the hands because that’s all he could practice and he could stick handle pretty well, but he just didn’t know where to go just yet,” Smith said. “He just needed a little bit of guidance, and I think him playing with me and other people as well … just talking through the game, he picked up things quickly.”
Smith, who does some scouting for teams at the junior hockey level, connected Zach with a friend, Chris Kanaly, who coached the Philadelphia Revolution of the Eastern Hockey League.
“He was going in basically blind and came out shining as well as he could on the other side for what he came up with,” Smith said. “They had him sit for a little bit because he was raw. They didn’t know what to do with him, but he picked the game up very quickly over a two-year span.”
After three seasons playing for the Revolution, Zach ended up playing college hockey 20 miles north of Philadelphia at Division III Bryn Athyn College. In his first three seasons at Bryn Athyn, Zach recorded 34 points over 62 total games played.
Prior to Zach’s senior season, Bryn Athyn went from the NCAA Division III level to the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division II level, and as a senior, he put up 74 points over 21 games, which was second in ACHA Division II. Pamaylaon was also named the Colonial States College Hockey Conference’s Most Valuable Player after leading the conference in points, goals, and assists.
“It didn’t feel like I was working hard. It just felt like I was playing the game that I loved.”
Out of college, Pamaylaon initially tried out for the Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League but did not make the final roster. Huntsville’s coach did pass along Pamaylaon’s information to teams in the FPHL and three teams in the league were interested in him. But it was Danbury and its coach Billy McCreary who stood out.
“I really wanted to play for him and Danbury,” Zach said. “He’s just very personable and sounded like a good guy and a good coach.”
Pamaylaon said in an email that he’s “protected for three years with Danbury. … I’m glad they saw me as a piece of their puzzle long term.”
Pamaylaon played in 46 games for Danbury this season, recording 25 points (eight goals and 17 assists). Against Carolina in the championship round of the playoffs, he played as a defenseman in Game 1 and was scratched from the lineup in Game 2.
With Danbury down 2-0 in the series, he was reinserted into the lineup at his normal forward position for Game 3, which he played for the rest of the series.
Danbury won that game 6-2. In Game 4, Pamaylaon buried the rebound of a shot from the low slot to score the power play goal that ended up being the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win for Danbury.
In the overtime period of Game 5, Pamaylaon found his teammate on a give-and-go pass before being checked at the blue line. His teammate took the puck to the net and got off a shot that was saved, but the rebound was put into the net for the game-winning goal.
On May 21, one week after winning Game 5 and the Commissioner’s Cup, Pamaylaon and his Danbury teammates had their victory parade in the city.
“It was nice to just share the win with the fans and the city of Danbury,” Pamaylaon said. “It was very nice, awesome experience.”
Pamaylaon said he his salary isn’t enough to make him wealthy, but said, “I’m playing the game I love and chasing my dream so I couldn’t be more happy. … Thankfully the team does a good job of putting us up in housing and supports us.”
Pamaylaon was one of two players from Hawaii to play in the FPHL this season — along with Honolulu’s Lance Hamilton. Pamaylaon was also one of the nine forwards that Danbury opted to protect in the FPHL’s upcoming expansion draft for the upcoming 2023-24 season, which starts in October.
Right now, Pamaylaon is on the island and looking to organize hockey clinics to give back to the next generation of hockey players in Hawaii.
“I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity and a shot to play on the mainland,” he said. “Not a lot of kids can say that from Hawaii. I’ve played with a bunch of good kids growing up and it doesn’t work out most times.”
Hockey itself has made strides in the state, according to Jones, who is also the director of hockey operations at Kapolei Inline Hockey Arenas. He estimates that after five more years, players from Hawaii could end up playing collegiately, in the minor leagues, or overseas in Europe.
“There’s hockey programs in Maui, on the Big Island, here in Oahu…we’re finally starting to get the respect that the hockey players should be deserving,” Jones said. “We’re still going through a building phase, but the actual game has progressed tremendously here in the last two years.”
Pamaylaon: “It’d just be nice to pass it forward, and hopefully another kid gets that opportunity as well.”