Riese Zmolek had a good idea that he’d be playing professional hockey somewhere this fall, but as the summer dragged on he began to feel a bit uptight about getting a deal done.
Phone calls to Zmolek and his agent from interested organizations began to pick up the second week of July.
One organization in particular struck a chord with Zmolek, a Rochester Century graduate who played junior hockey for the Austin Bruins and Cedar Rapids Roughriders before spending the past four seasons as an every-night defenseman for the Minnesota State University, Mankato Mavericks.
Last week, Zmolek decided it was time to put his signature on a contract to play pro hockey.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound left-shot defenseman has signed to play with the Iowa Wild, the top minor-league affiliate of Zmolek’s home-state Minnesota Wild. His contract is a two-way, minor-league deal, with the Iowa Wild and the Wild’s new ECHL franchise, the Iowa Heartlanders. The “two-way” designation means Zmolek will make a bigger salary if he sticks with the AHL club as opposed to the ECHL team.
Either way, the 24-year-old is ecstatic about his decision.
“I had heard from some other teams here and there,” Zmolek said, “but talking with my agent, we both kind of said it sounded like they really wanted me and they like my game. It’s a good spot, a great organization, going in the right direction.”
The Iowa Wild love the attributes Zmolek possesses that have made him a coach- and fan-favorite at every stop in his hockey career. From youth hockey in Rochester, to a standout three-year high school career at Century, to his time with the Bruins and Roughriders, and finally to MSU over the past four years, Zmolek’s team-first attitude and blue-collar work ethic have taken him far.
“We don’t have enough time,” MSU head coach Mike Hastings said during last season, when asked what he likes about Zmolek’s game. “I’m a big Riese Zmolek fan. So are his teammates.
Zmolek recorded 103 points in three seasons at Century. At MSU, Mankato he recorded seven goals 40 total points in four seasons, but his contributions to the Mavericks went far beyond his stat line.
Zmolek’s dad, Doug, was a first-round NHL Draft pick by the Minnesota North Stars in 1989 and played 467 games in the NHL. Will Zmolek, two years younger than Riese, will be a junior on Bemidji State’s men’s hockey team this fall and their youngest brother, Bennett, will be a freshman at MSU.
“I’ll go back to … I don’t think the apple falls too far from the tree,” Hastings said when talking of Zmolek’s family. “Doug and his wife (Jennifer) and that family have done a phenomenal job. I keep telling Douggie they should write a book because their young men are very accomplished human beings, let alone hockey players.
“What Riese has done for us is, he’s helped establish a culture of, ‘you don’t have to say a lot if you do a lot.’ He’s done a lot for us from Day 1 that he got here.”
Riese Zmolek played in 135 games in college career and was named the Mavericks’ captain this past season, when he led MSU to the Frozen Four for the first time in program history.
“Just the drive they have and the attention to every single little detail, every day,” Zmolek said when asked how the MSU coaching staff helped him improve. “They push you every day, whether it’s in the rink or the weight room.
“... I learned something new every day on the ice from them. I spent four years there and, even if it was as simple as stick positioning, every day they taught me something or I learned something from them.”
Now he’s trying to seize the newest hockey opportunity set in front of him.
“I’m just very grateful to get the opportunity to play pro hockey,” he said. “They’re going in the right direction. They’ll push you to keep getting better and I’ll keep trying to climb.”