Justice delayed: Do-it-all Bemidji grad sidelined for the moment with NA3HL's Grizzlies

Bemidji's Zak Justice celebrates scoring a goal in a December 2018 game against Rogers at the Bemidji Community Arena. Justice now plays for the NA3HL's Rochester Grizzlies. (Pioneer file photo)

Zak Justice had a bit of an advantage when he arrived at the Rochester Grizzlies' main tryout camp last summer.

The Bemidji native knew the adjustment to junior hockey wouldn't be an easy one, especially jumping from high school hockey to the North American 3 Hockey League, where physical play is often at a premium.

But that's exactly the advantage Justice — whose dad, Chris, grew up in Edina and played on the 1988 state championship team — brought with him. Growing up in northern Minnesota, he learned from an early age that he had to bring his best effort every night, and mix in some physical play with his scoring ability.

"Playing against those teams … Moorhead has always produced those great players, guys who go on to play (Division I college hockey), Roseau always has some, Brainerd has some," Justice said. "Just playing against those type of guys and the physical part of it has really prepared me for this level."

Justice not only made it through the Grizzlies' tryout camp, he has become an invaluable forward for Rochester, which is 32-8-2 and last weekend clinched the NA3HL Central Division championship.


"When he came here, at first he was playing a scoring role for us, then we got guys back who were up with NAHL teams, then that kind of moved him into a different role," Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. "I think at first that was hard for him because he’s been an offensive guy his whole life.

"He really stuck with it, accepted whatever role we asked him to play. He’s a guy we can use in pretty much any situation — power play, penalty kill, top line, grinder line, wherever he’s needed."

Just as Justice had locked down his role — a hard-nosed defender who could add some offense at a moment's notice — a lower-body injury has sidelined the 5-feet-10, 180-pound winger.

Justice was on a tear, putting up eight points — nearly half of his season total of 17 points — in eight games prior to suffering an injury earlier this month. His rehabilitation process might keep him off the Grizzlies' 25-man playoff roster, but that won't keep him away from the team, from his second family.

"Right before his injury Zak was starting to accept his role and understand that the junior game is different than high school and you have to play a different style," Ratzloff said. "Then the injury comes and to his credit, he’s shown up every day and is working hard, just as much a part of the team as he ever was.

"That’s the culture we’re trying to create here. When we get to the 25-man (roster freeze) and we’re limited in what we can do (with the roster), the guys who have been here and are injured or are young, but they’re not on that 25, they’re still just as much a part of the team."

While his injury may prevent him from playing in a game the rest of the season, Justice has kept a level head. He has his sights on the future and where he could end up in the fall, yet he's focused on the moment and a Grizzlies team that has designs on ending its season in suburban Chicago, site of the NA3HL's Fraser Cup championship tournament.

"We’re a really skilled team and have a lot of awesome locker-room guys and then that brings the intensity level up on the ice," Justice said. "All around we’re really deep and have a lot of really good players on this team."


Ratzloff said Justice has the ability to play at a higher level, such as the Tier II North American Hockey League, but the Grizzlies coaching staff will have a prime role waiting for him if he's back in Rochester in the fall.

"He’ll have a great role here, but hopefully we can get him some NA(HL) opportunities over the spring and summer," Ratzloff said. "I think he can play up there. If he were to come back, he’d be like any of our vets this year, step into a top-six (forward) role."

Zak Justice

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