Johnson: Zalapski recalls last shortened NHL season
Former Flames player still attempting to continue playing career at age 44
Mostly, Zarley Zalapski remembers the pace. Heightened. Frantic, even. And relentless. Almost no time to pause and draw breath.
“I found it tough,” he’s saying, nearly two decades later. “Very tough.
“To get everyone competing at a high level right away isn’t easy. You didn’t have the first 20 games to find your feet. If you waited ’til then, it was already over.
“I’m the type of player who usually uses the first 10 or so games to really get going and then peaks towards the playoffs.
“That year, like this one, makes no allowances for that.”
Now 44, and perhaps eyeing another return to European hockey, Zalapski is out on the WinSport ice sweating up a storm with the current crop of Calgary Flames, the Iginlas and Cammalleris, as yet another labour impasse has left a National Hockey League season in partial ruin. Eighteen years ago, he was in their shoes, trying to slap on a smile and prepare for a chaotic, condensed campaign in the wake of a bitter work stoppage.
“Every game will be so much more important for these guys now. Magnified. You get on a little losing streak or you start bad, there might be no getting back.
“You feel that, sure. Every night.
“People always talk about staying ‘on an even keel.’ Well, it’s tougher to do this in this kind of a situation when every game seems to be life and death.”
Back in ’94-95, Dave King was coach here, Doug Risebrough the GM, Trevor Kidd tended goal and Theoren Fleury and Joe Nieuwendyk were the remaining star attractions.
That year, three months, one week and two days — a total of 468 games — were lost to an owners’ lockout before a temporary non-salary-cap peace was restored on Jan. 11th.
That edition of the Flames opened up a 48-game regular season nine days later with a 3-3 tie at Winnipeg and went 24-17-7 to win the Pacific Division and place second in the Western Conference (although their 55 points were the third best, behind Detroit and St. Louis, both located in the Central Division) before the by-then-habitual first-round playoff fiasco, ousted in seven games by the 42-point San Jose Sharks.
The whole thing, says Zalapski, roared past in a compressed blur, a 33 R.P.M. record stuck on a 78 turntable.
“Things happen quickly as it is in this league, but this ... just takes it to another level. The good thing is you don’t have time to think. You’re working on instinct. You just keep going, the games keep coming at you and you keep playing your heart out.
“It’s unfortunate to have to go through this, what, every eight years? In my opinion it’s just mismanagement, from the top on down.
“Am I surprised it happened again? Yes and no. All BS aside, it was complete nonsense. It was nonsense back then. You’ve got to really think about the game, put the interests of the game first and try to work out a solution. It’s ego. It’s all ego. You’ve got to put that aside. It’s a business. You’ve got no cash flow if you’ve got no people coming to the games. It’s common sense. Grow the business. Grow the product. They’re not going to grow the business, especially down south, by not playing.
“Now, it’s like a store losing a customer. You’ve got to win that customer back, make him happy, make him feel his money is well spent, that he or she is getting good value for their dollar. Those are the people that count. The fans. They’re the ones who are going to grow the game.”
Eighteen years ago, a 26-year-old Zalapski, in his second season as a Flame and eighth in the league after being drafted fourth overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, endured the uncertainty of a lockout; the anxiety of when, or even if, the game would return to the ice.
“Hey, you can jump on the roller-coaster if you want. But if you choose not to, you can do that as well. To play hockey, being stuck on that ride isn’t the ideal situation. It can drive you crazy. You require all your energy, all your emotion, just to play this game at a high level. So wasting it on the other stuff ...
“Sure there’s apprehension and frustration. But if you’re looking at the papers and the TV every day, one day everything’s great, the next the bottom’s fallen out. You can’t buy into that. You just have to believe that everything’s going to get resolved. Eventually. I did that in ’94-95. And if things hadn’t worked out, hey there’s always next year. It’s not as if the NHL’s going to go out of business. It’s coming at some point in time, hopefully sooner than later.”
After finishing up his NHL career in 2000 with Philly, he travelled overseas and hooked up with clubs in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Following the 2009-10 season, the former Canadian national team star returned to Calgary to re-establish residency, spoke to the Flames about a job and is now toying with the idea of playing return to Europe.
“I never officially ‘retired’,” he protests.
And if the old hand had a word of experienced advice for the players who are about to embark on the same frenetic 48-game all-out push he did 18 years ago, it’d be this:
“Don’t waste your energy in practices. Especially in the Western Conference. The travel’s a lot more difficult.
“You just wish these guys all the best. This is not an easy situation. Like I said, it’s tough. Very tough. Just, hey, bring it all in the games.
“There’s no idle. You’ve got to be at full throttle every night.”
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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