How a Grizzly became a Gopher: Behind the scenes of Zach Wiese's commitment to Minnesota
Owatonna native and Rochester Grizzlies goalie Zach Wiese committed to play Division I college hockey at the University of Minnesota last week. He's the first Grizzly to play Division I hockey.
Zach Wiese went through the ups and downs of being a junior hockey player over the past two years.
He played for three different teams, was cut once, and was called up to a higher level then sent back down. Wiese played behind a league Goalie of the Year, then became a league Goalie of the Year. There were times when he wondered if he wanted to continue playing hockey and times when he wondered why he’d even had that internal debate.
Through it all, the work ethic of the Owatonna native and standout goalie for the Rochester Grizzlies never wavered. And that work ethic led to a phone call last month that he never expected.
"It's crazy to get this opportunity," Wiese said. "Nothing's done yet, though. I have to keep working."
That opportunity is a chance to join a Division I college hockey program — and not just any D1 program. The call came from the powerhouse University of Minnesota , a team coached by Austin native Bob Motzko, and a team that Wiese grew up cheering for.
The Gophers were seeking a third goalie to join incumbent starter Justen Close and returning backup Owen Bartoszkiewicz, after Brennan Boynton made the decision not to return to the team for the 2022-23 season.
It’s extremely rare for a player to jump directly from the North American 3 Hockey League — even a player who is the league’s Goalie of the Year and backstopped his team to the league championship — to Division I hockey, especially with a program the caliber of Minnesota. But Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff wasn’t fully surprised when he received a call one day in mid-May from Wiese’s advisor, fellow Owatonna native Lincoln Nguyen.
“Lincoln said ‘this is going to sound crazy, but the Gophers called me about Zach,’” Ratzloff said. “I don’t think it sounded that crazy. Obviously, it’s crazy from the standpoint that it’s the Gophers, one of the best teams in the country, but for the specific role they want Zach to play, I don’t think it’s crazy at all.”
The third-goalie role on a Division I team isn’t glamorous. It usually involves a lot of practice time — being the first one on the ice and the last one off — and little, if any, playing time. But Wiese’s high school coach said Wiese is built to handle those responsibilities.
“He’s very much a quiet kid, and I mean that in a great way,” said Josh Storm, who is now in his second season as the head coach at Lakeville South High School. “He’s not going to be a pain the butt if he’s not getting (playing) time. He’s excited to go up there and be in that role. … His desire to be a Gopher is pretty high. … He’s an unbelievable teammate, a three-sport athlete in high school. He knows how to be a great teammate and leader.
“He brings his best self every day and is prepared for opportunities when they come.”
Making the jump
But, still, how does an opportunity to jump from the North American 3 Hockey League straight to Division I hockey come about?
Nguyen, who played goalie for Owatonna in the early 2000s, had known Wiese’s father, Marc, since Nguyen was a young athlete coming up through the Owatonna youth program. Marc Wiese worked with Nguyen’s mother and he had coached Nguyen in Bantam hockey.
Nguyen graduated from Owatonna in 2004, then played junior hockey and Division III college hockey before coaching at various levels of juniors and college, including a season as an assistant coach with Division I University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Nguyen then returned to Owatonna and was an assistant coach with the Huskies varsity when Zach Wiese was a senior. So when Nguyen became an advisor and co-owner of Hawkeye Hockey Services — a company that offers specialized consulting and training for hockey players — it seemed natural that Wiese would become a client.
“There were some question marks about Zach (from junior hockey teams) after high school,” Nguyen said, “only because he was a multi-sport athlete who’d never committed himself (solely) to hockey. But that’s the beauty of being a multi-sport athlete, you have so many different interchangeable skills.
"And Zach, being a great football player (in a traditionally powerful program), he had that championship mentality.”
Wiese decided to devote himself full-time to hockey after graduating from Owatonna. He joined the Grizzlies in the fall of 2020 and put up outstanding numbers (13-3-1, 1.83 goals-against average, .920 save percentage) in limited playing time behind the 2021 NA3HL Goalie of the Year, Shane Soderwall.
After that strong rookie season, along with some help from Nguyen, Wiese was tendered by Amarillo of the North American Hockey League, but he struggled in Amarillo’s main tryout camp last summer and was released.
He was again at a crossroads: Do I want to keep playing hockey? Do I want to go to school? Do I want to go start a career? What's the potential reward for continuing to work and stick with a hockey career?
"I think, after thinking about it, he just decided 'this is it, this is going to be my team and I'm going to take control of it,'" Ratzloff said.
Wiese returned to Rochester for the 2021-22 season and delivered a championship for the Grizzlies, going 27-4-1 with a 1.70 GAA and .927 save percentage. He was also the third consecutive Grizzlies goalie to be named the NA3HL Goalie of the Year, joining Soderwall (2021) and Mathias Backstrom (2020).
“Zach really committed himself to transforming to being a hockey player,” Nguyen said. “He surrounded himself with the best people. Rochester did a phenomenal job of having the direction for him. (Ratzloff) is there every single day, Zach’s (offseason) goalie coach, Brennan Poderzay (who is also the Gophers’ goalie coach) is there. Brennan did a great job of getting Zach’s mind into it.
“But at the end of the day, the biggest thing is helping Zach understand there is no magic pill to this. You have to work hard, have the right diet, have the right daily habits. No one can do this for you, but if you continue to do things the right way, you’ll get rewarded at some point.”
Wiese’s reward came last week — at 5:40 p.m. on June 21, to be exact — when he announced he will be a Gopher in the fall.
Hard work isn't over
Poderzay, who was the goalie coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato, prior to joining Minnesota, had witnessed Wiese's ability and work ethic during their training sessions in the Twin Cities. He was the bridge between Wiese and the Gophers.
That led to Wiese and his dad sitting in the Gophers hockey coaches’ offices in late May, holding back smiles and fist pumps as Motzko offered Wiese a spot on the roster. Wiese didn’t need more than a breath or two to accept.
Now, Nguyen said, the hard work really begins.
“Brennan was a big proponent in this,” Nguyen said. “And being in the position Zach is going into isn’t puppy breath, rainbows and butterflies. It’s not the funnest spot to be in. He’s expected to show up, work his butt off as much as possible for however long his teammates want to be in the weight room or on the ice.
“Zach had opportunities to be a starter (immediately) for a couple of Division III teams. He was tossing that around, but as soon as this came up…”
Storm, Wiese’s high school coach, said Wiese has an endless list of qualities that will help him in his new role.
“The biggest thing has always been his compete level,” Storm said. “I was always amazed at how competitive he was. And his ability to make saves he should have no business making. He’ll shoot across (the crease) on a play when the puck should be in the back of the net, but he’ll keep it out. He has the ability to stand on his head, make save after save and frustrate the other team when it has plays that should be goals.”
Nguyen said Wiese’s ascent to the Gophers should be an example for all young players of how hard work can pay off.
“It creates some hope and a good foundation for guys to understand that you never know who’s looking at you or watching you,” Nguyen said. “If there’s a 7 a.m. practice that you don’t want to go to, don’t forget that coaches know each other.
“Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s really about how badly do you want to be a good person and do things the right way? Everyone’s pathway is different. There’s no cookie cutter approach to going about a career. Everyone needs to be committed to their process and to themselves.”