zarley zalapski, 1968—2017

Bad news today from the NHL: former defenceman Zarley Zalapski has died at the age of 49. Born in Edmonton, he played 12 NHL seasons, mostly for the Calgary Flames, though he also skated for Pittsburgh, Hartford, Montreal, and Philadelphia. “I played defence,” he once recalled, “’cause we were short defenceman.” His father disagreed: as Zarley’s earliest coach, Len Zalapski said he’d consigned his son to the blueline. “I always had a theory that defencemen get more ice time.”

Long before Ken Hitchcock found his way to the Stars’ bench in Dallas, he cut a 15-year-old Zalapski from his team in Sherwood Park, Alberta. (The coach confessed his regret, later.) In 1984 the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux first overall, and they followed that up in ’85 by claiming Craig Simpson. Zalapski was next: Pittsburgh made him their first-rounder in ’86, fourth overall. He also wore the maple leaf, patrolling bluelines for several Team Canadas. At the 1986 Izvestia tournament in Moscow, he was voted top defenceman ahead of Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov. At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Calgary (Canada finished fourth), he joined a defensive corps that also counted Randy Gregg and Trent Yawney. “I’ve never really expected anything out of hockey,” Zalapski said in those years. “It really didn’t matter as long as I kept at it, kept enjoying it.”

The name? His father borrowed that from his favourite golfer, Kermit Zarley. “It’s always worthwhile if you have a unique name,” Len Zalapski said.