Ryan Zapolski’s second year in the ECHL gave him a taste of what life is like for a goaltender plying his trade at that level of professional hockey.
Playing for four teams in one season, Zapolski got used to hearing the phrase “It’s a numbers thing” from coaches telling him why he was being released. He went from Stockton to Kalamazoo to Toledo to Gwinnett (to the tune of the Carmen Sandiego TV theme song) and found himself frustrated — the lack of opportunities left him wondering if he should walk away from the game.
“I had been home for two weeks in-between games and didn’t really know where I was going with hockey,” Zapolski told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday. “I wasn’t applying for jobs or anything like that, so it wasn’t that real for me.”
He felt his game was fine, but that phrase kept being uttered by coaches at each stop. The retirement option, however, was just a passing thought and he knew he just had to be a little more patient. “I was still young enough and it was only my second year, so I was still happy to wait and look for that chance,” he said.
A life of going to the rink every day to play hockey beat working a regular job, so Zapolski stuck with it and heeded the advice of players who quit too early by having the mindset of trying to play as long as he could.
“I’m happy I stuck with it,” he said.
Fast forward six years and hundreds of long bus rides later and Zapolski, who is in his second year with Jokerit of the KHL, is one three goaltenders on the U.S. men’s team.
When the NHL announced they wouldn’t be sending players to the 2018 Olympics, Jim Johansson, the late general manager of the men’s team, reached out to the 31-year-old Zapolski in May letting him know that he was on their radar. With three roster spots open for goaltenders, there was plenty of motivation heading into this season.
“You just get really excited right away,” Zapolski said, “just want to get the season going. I think maybe a little extra time in the gym, too. But obviously, you get that type of news and you know what kind of chance it could be and you want to have a good start to the season.”
[USA Hockey announces 2018 Olympic men’s roster]
It’s been a great year for Zapolski as he’s posted a 23-10-4 record and a .933 save percentage with Jokerit. He was named to the KHL All-Star Game earlier this month and also signed a two-year extension, which would give him seven years in Finland when it expires.
“I think a lot of people back home don’t know who he is and don’t realize how good the hockey is over here,” said Zapolski’s Jokerit teammate Matt Gilroy. “He’s been really good for a long time over here, especially this year. We’re one of the better teams in the league and he has a big thing to do with that. He’s just a gamer and the Olympics is a special tournament that I think he can do well at.”
Zapolski’s final season in the ECHL was 2012-13 and it was the best of his career. In 38 games, he was 25-11-2 with a .944 save percentage. That success led him to being named the league’s rookie of the year, goaltender of the year and most valuable player. He parlayed that into a contract with Lukko of Finland’s SM-liiga, where he would spend the next three seasons.
The plan was to play a few years there and then come back to North America, but nothing concrete materialized contract-wise over here. Zapolski didn’t worry about returning home to play mainly because he would sign extensions to stay at the beginning of the season.
Zapolski was the only goaltender listed on the men’s roster when the team was announced Jan. 1. Brandon Maxwell and David Leggio were added two weeks later, but it’s a safe bet the Erie, Pa. native will be the starter when the U.S. plays its first game of the tournament Feb. 14 versus Slovenia.
Like Gilroy said, Zapolski isn’t a household name in the U.S., but a strong Olympics in front of a large television audience could open some eyes to future opportunities. Has he thought about attempting to come back and play in North America in the future?
“It’s definitely something that’s a possibility,” he said. “I’m happy here, so I’m not really going to rush anything or push anything to get back to North America. Of course, I know [the Olympics are] the biggest stage, everybody’s going to be watching [like] NHL GMs.”
Zapolski mentioned Tim Thomas as an example of a goaltender who got an NHL chance at a later age (28) after years of playing in the minors and Europe. But for the moment he’s not thinking that far down the line.
“I’ve been overlooked in the past, my whole career, really,” he said. “Like I said, I’m happy here and if it happens, it happens. I really have no regrets coming over.”
Zapolski has played in three Deutschland Cups for the U.S., but representing his country at the Olympics is an opportunity on another level.
“Going to Deutschland Cup in the past was such an honor. The first one I kind of thought that was my Olympics and didn’t think I’d get a chance to be in the actual Olympics,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest honor in sports for any athlete is to represent your country in the Olympics.
“It’s going to be special, pretty emotional for most of us to be there. Just looking forward to everything. The whole experience is going to be once-in-a-lifetime.”
MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.