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Catching Up with Rick Zombo

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues
Rick Zombo spent more than 12 seasons as a defenseman in the NHL, including stints with the Red Wings, Blues and Bruins. Detroit traded him to St. Louis on Oct. 18, 1991 in exchange for goaltender Vincent Riendeau and Zombo spent four seasons with the Blues.

He played 231 games for St. Louis, recording 6 goals, 42 assists and 233 penalty minutes. Zombo currently lives in St. Louis and sat down with recently to discuss life after an NHL career.

STLOUISBLUES.COM: What was your first reaction to being traded to St. Louis in 1991?

RICK ZOMBO: Well for me, it was kind of a shock because I thought that I was fairly established and in my prime and playing well in Detroit. But also at that time, if Wayne Gretzky can get traded, anybody can. It’s part of the business.

Coming to St. Louis was nice for me because I know that they had just lost Scott Stevens, so it was very important for them to replace a prominent position. When you get traded for the team’s No. 1 goalie, it’s a nice feeling because you know that you’re wanted and they’re expecting big things.

On top of that, it was comfortable because it was still in the Norris Division. Being in Detroit, we were in St. Louis and played against St. Louis pretty frequently. Even though you don’t have friendships, you have an awful lot of respect among hockey players and it became a welcoming family to come in. The fans in St. Louis are unbelievable.

STLB: Which is the better rivalry, Blues/Red Wings or Blues/Blackhawks?

RZ: I think it’s all pretty much the same. I think that through proximity, there are far more Blackhawks fans that will travel down to St. Louis for the those games, so there’s always a sideshow in the arena.

STLB: Were you on the ice during the famous fight between Curtis Joseph and Detroit's Tim Cheveldae in 1992?

RZ: Yes.

STLB: Who did you grab?

RZ: Originally how it started was Bob Probert went after Dave Lowry. Pretty much anybody in the National Hockey League, other than Joe Kocur, would be a mismatch against Bob Probert. I was the third man in. I didn’t want Dave Lowry to be in a tough situation so I tried to balance things, if you will.

STLB: As an old school player yourself, does the league miss players like Al MacInnis, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque, etc? Or do you think the league is doing just fine as it is?

RZ: I think the skill level in the game has improved dramatically. What was nice when I played, it was very intense relationship amongst whoever you played. The schedule was designed to have home and home. There was a lot more emotion in the game. It was a situation where you made certain that you played through injuries. That tradition was handed down when I came in as a rookie. That’s what makes the game so strong.

Not everybody can play at the National Hockey League level. For myself personally, I was very blessed every time I stepped on the ice, whether it be a practice or a game. And I approached my professionalism that way. That’s just me. But also, that’s what everybody did when I played. It really became quite a tight bond. That part of the game, I don’t see it so much. I don’t see the intense rivalries, I don’t see the shift-by-shift, 60-minutes for 82 games and then playoffs. That’s what makes the game so special.

STLB: Why did you make St. Louis your permanent home after you finished your career in Boston?

 Rick Zombo
Rick Zombo spent four seasons with the Blues and now serves as the Director of the Hockey Academy of St. Louis.

MORE: Bio | Stats | Hockey Academy
RZ: I grew up in Chicago and I think all Midwestern people are the same, so it very easy and comfortable for me. The pace of St. Louis is far more conducive to me personally compared to Chicago. The weather, the cost of living. But probably more than anything else is I had a Red Wings alumnus that explained to me when I was young how important it was to spend summers in the cities where you make your living.

I really fell in love with St. Louis. The people that are filling the seats at the arena were always the same faces. You could skate around during the game and warm up and always see the same faces. It was almost like a neighborhood. When that carried off outside of the glass, the people really want to interact and get to know the Blues player without the equipment. They took you for what you were without the equipment, which really made it nice.

STLB: What are you up to these days?

RZ: Right now I’m the director of the Hockey Academy. We teach and develop young hockey players here in St. Louis. It is a full time position. We are always expanding and developing new things to assist the development of young hockey players.explaining and building and developing new things to assist and grow hockey in St. Louis. These players improve their hockey specific skills and they enjoy the game more and play longer.

It is very fulfilling for me because I was fortunate to beat the odds and play in the NHL, but more so make a profession out of what I know best. It doesn’t matter if it’s a newbie beginning to skate or a professional hockey player, there’s always something as a coach I can provide these players. There are never shortcuts to success, but with professional coaches and support from the advanced technology we have in our facility, every player improves. When players get better, their self esteem follows it up.

STLB: How satisfying is it to see these kids improve?

RZ: It’s everything. The biggest satisfaction is seeing these kids enjoying playing the game. There’s not a player that doesn’t improve at the Hockey Academy. To watch all these hockey players anxious to come to Hockey Academy with big smiles on their faces is very rewarding.  What’s nice is, when these players leave, they become our marketing because they’ve improved so dramatically amongst their peers that everybody wants to know where it’s coming from. The improvement of our players speak volumes.

STLB: If there had been a Hockey Academy when you were going up, could Rick Zombo have been Bobby Orr?

RZ: I’ll tell you something, Rick Zombo used to go to a dimly lit YMCA, used to run the same hill that Walter Payton ran, used to pick up water buckets to improve my hand strength. The difference is I was self taught and watched a lot of hockey on TV. Now, with professional instruction, with technology to support the knowledge we have as coaches, there's a dramatic difference.  Would I have been Bobby Orr? No. There is only one Bobby Orr.

STLB: Jamal Mayers, Barret Jackman and Bryce Salvador own the Hockey Academy. Do they make good bosses?

RZ: (They're) phenomenal. Hockey players are all the same, it’s an unwritten bond and respect. When you have a task at hand, here’s a direction and you get it done. They’re not micromanaging over your shoulder, but they are there for support for new ideas. They’re always offering insight and help, as far as trying different ways for these kids for improve. To watch the involvement of those three players at Blues summer camp, it’s unbelievable. Not only are they professional athletes, but they are very accessible and they speak from the heart. They are passionately involved with the success of hockey in St. Louis.

STLB: As a former defenseman yourself, what is your take on Erik Johnson?

RZ: Unbelievable. Unbelievable. Somebody that has so much upside potential. Look at how dominant he was as a 19-year-old this year. It’s only going to get better. It’s very difficult to groom or find a defenseman that can dominate a game, and at 19, he showed many flashes of that as the games went on. To have that type of foundation for the growth and success of the Blues organization, it’s unbelievable.

It’s very important, in my opinion, that they are cautious with his grooming, because he is young and he’s only going to get better.

STLB: Who is the best teammate you've ever had?

RZ: Every teammate that I had was all the same way. We all had the same passion to with the Stanley Cup.

STLB: How about best coach?

RZ: Oh man. Well they’re all different. I’ve got a feeling personally because Jacques Demers was the one that gave me the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League. I was an 8th round draft pick, probably the second pick after they broke for lunch. So I was not somebody that the scouts and general managers were pushing and promoting.

Jacques Demers had a history of taking players and putting them in the right position to do well. I might have been last on the depth chart and last alphabetically, but in my first year at training camp, he stuck to his word where if I was the best defenseman down in the minors, if they had an injury or a trade, I’d have my opportunity. He gave me an opportunity. Very rarely, you get one opportunity. I got one, and I took advantage of it.

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