Zack Vermeulen fell in love with hockey in – of all places – Turks and Caicos, the small Caribbean country made up of 40 islands best known for luxury resorts and crystal blue ocean waters. His journey and love for the game is a winding path for the now-15-year-old resident of Vancouver Island, a place he and his family have made their home since arriving in Canada in 2014.
Born in South Africa, Zack played soccer and rugby as a young boy before moving to Turks and Caicos in 2011. It was in March of that year he saw hockey for the first time on television; he immediately fell in love with the speed and grace of the game.
There are no ice hockey rinks in Turks and Caicos, but Zack pursued the game anyway. He begged and pleaded with his mother to get him hockey gear. But getting equipment would be no easy task; the family had to get some shipped from the nearest place that had equipment – Miami. That got Zack started playing roller hockey for the first time before his family moved again; in 2014, they arrived in Parksville, B.C., on the east coast of Vancouver Island.
Parksville, home to just over 10,000 residents, is known for its mild climate (by Canadian standards). This is where Zack, who was nine years old, played ice hockey for the first time, suiting up for the Oceanside Minor Hockey Association.
Zack’s love for the game grew as he made friends and had fun on the ice. “In hockey, I like meeting new people and making that bond by just playing a couple games with them,” he says.
The home rink for Oceanside is named after Hockey Hall of Famer Howie Meeker, who lived in Parksville following his career as a player and national broadcaster before passing away in November 2020 at the age of 97. Meeker was always willing to give back to the local hockey community. “He came and spoke to my team at 5:30 a.m., and he told us that hockey in many ways prepares you for life,” Zack says.
He credits a lot people for helping along his hockey journey, including his three amazing sisters, who support him on and off the ice. “They sacrificed a lot of their time and their life, driving with me for hockey and they didn’t complain.”
The list also includes Ward Stouffer, who coached Zack when he first started playing. “Ward taught me how to shoot and many other things you need to be successful in hockey and he told me he saw potential in me.”
Stouffer was a long-time golf professional, spending a decade as a touring pro on the Canadian and Asian tours and becoming the head pro and golf director at Fairwinds Golf Club before passing away suddenly from a heart attack in January 2017 at the age of 56. His passion for teaching sports was infectious, something that remains with Zack.
In 2017, Zack and his family were on the move again, this time 150 kilometers south to Victoria. Upon moving to the provincial capital, Zack played with three Greater Victoria associations – Saanich (now Victoria), Peninsula and Juan de Fuca. His game progressed, moving from Tier 2 to Tier 1.
During the 2020-21 season, Zack made the jump to the AAA level and the South Island Royals of the B.C. Hockey U16AAA League. The league is made up of 10 regional teams, comprised of the top 15-year-old players from across B.C. and the Yukon. The Royals include players from all of southern Vancouver Island.
Brett Vestby, the Royals’ head coach who Zack says has been one of his favourites, is amazed at Zack’s character. “Zack is the definition of a team player and a leader,” he says. “He is the first to stand up for anyone, consistently goes out of his way to help others, and holds teammates accountable and to a high standard. His character and mentality made him an easy decision to be part of our leadership group this season. As a player, Zack is always asking us coaches for advice and tips on how he can develop. He is determined to get better in all aspects of the game, no matter how difficult it might be.”
While this season has been a challenge with COVID-19 and the restrictions it has put on sports, Zack is taking it all in stride; he and his teammates are still permitted to be on the ice three to four days a week, and he is working to emulate the game of his favourite player, Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A true islander, Zack’s love of the game grew from playing on wheels in the Caribbean to the ice on Canada’s Pacific Coast. He serves an inspiration to all that it is never too late to start playing and that hard work, passion and dedication can bring joy.