International Ice Hockey Federation

Huge year for Zapolski

Huge year for Zapolski

Jokerit netminder to help U.S. at Olympics

Published 15.08.2018 16:15 GMT+11 | Author John Tranchina
Huge year for Zapolski
American goaltender Ryan Zapolski gets ready for a KHL game with Jokerit Helsinki. Soon he will play at the Olympics with Team USA. Photo: Nina Zotina / RIA Novosti
It’s already been an outstanding season for Ryan Zapolski, but it’s about to get a lot better.

The 31-year-old netminder, who has enjoyed a stellar season so far for Jokerit Helsinki in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League, is heading to the Olympic Winter Games in Korea as Team USA’s likely starter. The U.S. opens the tournament on 14th February against Slovenia.

What happens after that is up to him. Zapolski fully expects the USA goaltender playing the best to get the bulk of the action, whether it is he or Brandon Maxwell, who plays for BK Mlada Boleslav in the Czech Extraliga, or David Leggio of EHC Munchen in Germany’s DEL.

“I don’t know for sure,” Zapolski said, regarding his expected workload. “We’ll see when we get there, but probably whoever’s playing the best should get to play, in my opinion. I’m okay if it’s not me, we’re all there to win, but hopefully I’m playing the best and I get to play right away.”

Zapolski has been excellent this year for Jokerit, sporting a 23-11-4 record along with a stingy 1.73 goals-against average (ranking third in the KHL among starters), a 93.2 save percentage (good for fourth among starting netminders), and a league-leading nine shutouts through 38 appearances. He was the only goaltender named when the U.S. announced its roster on New Year’s Day.

“I think it starts with his numbers, and this guy, the numbers are fantastic on a very consistent basis,” said Team USA general manager Jim Johannson before he tragically passed away on 21st January, regarding Zapolski. “Also, when you get to know him as a guy, he’s got a real calming demeanor to him. You see the competitiveness in him, but he’s also a guy that can bring confidence to a team and it makes a difference. From a very consistent level for the last five years in Europe, he’s been a top goaltender. And I think, if you look at his teams, he’s always played on teams that have had some success, but they’ve also at times needed to rely on a goaltender to carry them through some games, and he’s capable of doing that.”

Both Maxwell and Leggio were added to the U.S. team on 11th January, which gives the impression that Zapolski has the inside track on the starting job, something head coach Tony Granato seemed to acknowledge.

“Obviously, we only named one goalie a month ago when we named Zapolski, so he’s the guy that’s had the best year of the three,” Granato said. “He’s been really solid all year playing in the KHL.”

This is Zapolski’s second season with Jokerit and his fifth in Finland, after suiting up for Lukko Rauma in the domestic championship Liiga from 2013 to 2016. Following a solid performance last year when he went 16-19-5 with a 2.45 goals-against average and a 90.9 save percentage, Zapolski has taken a big step forward this season.

“It’s my second year here, so I think I’m a little more comfortable,” he said, trying to explain his recent success. “I got off to a really good start, I was able to play a lot right away. Our other goalie got injured in pre-season, so that helped me. Last year, I didn’t get to play as much, just kind of splitting every game, but I’m used to playing a lot, and I was playing a lot right away, and our team is pretty strong. We work hard. It’s just fun. We’re winning a lot so it was easy to come to the rink and just play hockey. I don’t know if there’s any secret to it.”

It’s gone so well, in fact, that Zapolski recently signed a new two-year contract extension to stay with Jokerit through 2020.

“I want to play in the best league I can and the KHL is a great league, and I’m comfortable with everything,” said Zapolski, who is from Erie, Pennsylvania, played NCAA hockey at Mercyhurst College (which is in Erie) and was never drafted by an NHL club. “I’m obviously getting older, so the NHL, I don’t know if it’s there anymore, but we’ll see after this next two years. If things go well, you never know, but I’m happy here, so I didn’t see any reason to move on.”

While it can sometimes be a challenge as an American in a foreign country, he loves it in Helsinki (more than he did in Rauma) and has even learned to speak some Finnish, although he doesn’t really need to.

“It was a little bit different in Rauma the first few years, it was really small, so there wasn’t a lot to do, but most people spoke English,” Zapolski said. “Our coach didn’t, so everything was in Finnish there, but you pick up on some words here and there. Now I can listen to guys talk and I know a lot of what they’re saying, but I definitely can’t speak it fluently. Here, we have a lot of import guys – four Danish guys, a couple of Swedish and five Americans, so everything is in English. It’s really North American-like, and around Helsinki, there’s really good restaurants, good shopping and stuff like that, so it’s kind of busy, a lot of stuff to do.”

He’s used to it now, but it was a pretty monumental decision when he first opted to leave North America. He had just put together a monster 2012/13 season with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, posting ridiculous numbers (a 25-11-2 record, 1.62 GAA, 94.4 save percentage and eight shutouts) to claim the league’s Rookie of the Year, Goaltender of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. At that point, Zapolski felt he’d earned the right to move up a level but wasn’t happy with the NHL/AHL offers he received, so he took a leap of faith and headed over to Finland.

“It was a huge step,” admitted Zapolski, who went 30-19-7 with a 2.02 GAA, 92.6 SP and seven shutouts that first year with Lukko. “I’d always hoped to come over for a couple of years and then go back to North America, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. The big factor for me was getting to play a lot of games and I believed it was pretty comparable to the AHL, and I didn’t know if I would have that chance in North America.

“So I got to play a lot and really improved my game. There’s a lot of Finnish goalies that are known to come to North America and be good NHL goalies, so that was kind of my goal, to learn a little bit of the Finnish style. That was a bit of a selling point as well. It’s been good. It’s a great hockey country and I’ve really enjoyed it here.”

Now, as the Olympic tournament rapidly approaches, Zapolski is gearing up for what will undoubtedly be a memorable experience.

“It’s really exciting, obviously, and I’m really humbled by the opportunity that I’ve gotten here,” Zapolski said. “It’s an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I’m just looking forward to getting there and having an opportunity to win gold.”


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