In celebration of Black History Month, Hockey Alberta is proud to share stories from across the province’s hockey community.
RED DEER – If you were to Google the small town of Healy, Alaska on a map Zack Dailey wouldn’t blame you.
That’s the hometown of the MacEwan University head coach. It has a population of just over a 1,000 people and it’s where the now 34-year-old got his introduction to hockey when he was seven.
“I grew up on a homestead. Our closest neighbour was a couple kilometres away. Pretty cool childhood where you just go out in the forest and go explore and do whatever you want. I grew up it was soccer in the summer and hockey in the winter,” Dailey recalled. “(Hockey) was just something I used to hang out with my friends. To be honest, the first few years I was probably the worst player on the team.”
Even with the early struggles on the ice, Dailey fell in love with the sport and the experience of playing where he did.
“All my friends were there, so I kind of kept with it. But yeah, it was a unique outdoorsy experience. The only rink we had was an outdoor rink so we’re out there until minus 30 and then they’d start canceling practices, but I had a lot of cool experiences,” Dailey said. “Parents gave me some quick, cool opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Dailey got better. So much so that his family decided to move to Alberta when he was 13 so he could go up against better competition.
The level of competition in Alberta was a big step up for Dailey. In Alaska, there are ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams that are considered competitive, and then ‘C’ and ‘D’ teams are considered house league. Healy’s lone team was a ‘D’ level team and would play against other teams from towns that had populations of 1,000 to 3,000.
“I caught the eye of a coach from the ‘A’ team, but we would have to travel to Fairbanks to play. The travel was outrageous … it was two and a half hours each way, three days a week and usually with some crappy road conditions,” Dailey said. “We’d go to the (University of Alaska Fairbanks) Nanooks, Division I hockey games and everyone from their team played in the AJHL. We had no clue what that was, so we looked on the Internet and went ‘I guess that’s where they’re developing hockey players. So, we made the move to Leduc.”
Dailey’s first taste of hockey in Alberta was when he decided to play spring hockey before enrolling into the Alberta minor hockey system.
“It was a big jump. In three years, I went from ‘D’ to playing AAA. But I felt like I was ready for it … the spring hockey helped prepare me,” he said. “It was a lot more commitment, better coaching. But it was a lot of fun and I’m so thankful that my dad and mom gave me the opportunity to do that. Because without that there’s no way I would win as far as I did in hockey.”
Dailey’s minor hockey career reached its peak when he tallied 41 goals and 93 points in 39 games with the U15 AAA Sherwood Park Flyers winning him co-MVP and co-winner of the scoring title while helping Sherwood Park to the league finals. His stellar minor hockey career got him an opportunity with the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips where he went on to be named captain in his final two seasons.
Once he wrapped up his junior and university career at the University of Alberta, Dailey set out to play professional hockey overseas. When that didn’t pan out, he turned to coaching when he was named assistant coach with MacEwan University men’s team in 2017. He stayed in that role until he took over the head coaching role partway through last season and had the interim tag removed ahead of the 2023-24 campaign.
“I wanted to stay involved in hockey … but I didn’t know what capacity. Coaching is something I kind of fell into,” Dailey said. “From playing to coaching, I think that helped me. With all the coaches I’ve had, I’ve had some amazing coaches. It’s great to be able to take what you like from people, and then, you know, discard the stuff you didn’t really agree with.”
After missing the playoffs last season, Dailey has led his plucky group of Griffins back to the Canada West postseason in 2024, after a collecting three of a possible four points in back-to-back games against the Manitoba Bisons.
But maybe more importantly, Dailey, who comes from a Nigerian background, has used his journey to become a role model for a new generation of Black athletes to show them that they can achieve their goals just as former National Hockey League players Jarome Iginla and George Laraque showed him when he was growing up.
“There’s obviously not a lot of Black hockey players so I’m quite proud of where I’ve gotten to and where I’m at right now. Being a Black man and leading a university hockey team is something that I’m really, really proud of,” he said. “I think that whatever path you’re going down, if you see people who look like you, and who have the same experience as you, it makes it a lot easier. I know, as a kid, the hardest thing for me was always being the only Black player on the team. There’s no one to relate to, if anything was said I was the only one dealing with it. And so that part for me was very, very hard. But you know, knowing that people have went through before and have succeeded. That’s a big plus for me. And that helped me a whole bunch. So, I’m hoping that younger kids see it that way too.”