He was the last of the original Lightning players playing in Tampa Bay… and he just found out he was traded for a general manager. “Yeah, it was totally out of left field. It was a shock. Your first trade I think is quite a shock to the system.”
Rob Zamuner had just become the first (and so far only) player traded for an acting general manager in the NHL, when he was sent to Ottawa as part of a package for GM Rick Dudley. Despite moving on to a contending team, the departure from Tampa Bay was rough for him. “I was excited I went to a really strong team, but it was hard because I had grown to love the [Tampa Bay] area. I have a lot of friends there, and at the end of the day I feel fortunate that I had a chance to play there and I still visit the area quite often and I feel that’s a privilege that I had a chance to play there.”
In 481 games over seven seasons, Zamuner didn’t light the lamp like Brian Bradley. He wasn’t a first-overall draft selection like Roman Hamrlik. He didn’t pummel the opposition like Enrico Ciccone. But he worked hard, night in and night out. His work ethic was seen by the first Lightning general manager, Phil Esposito, when both men were part of the New York Rangers’ organization. “He was in the [Rangers] system I think about until about two weeks before the draft, the amateur draft. So I think they had their scouting staff and all their homework finished by that point, and I was drafted by the Rangers and Phil was no longer with the organization. When Phil got the organization down in Tampa, he had I guess watched me back in junior and was going to draft me as a New York Ranger so I think that’s where the connection came.”
A third-round pick of the Rangers in 1989, Zamuner flourished in the Rangers’ farm system for three seasons, earning him a nine-game cup of coffee with the Presidents’ Trophy Rangers team of 1991-92. Even though he was rocketing up the pipeline, Zamuner knew his chances of cracking an extremely talented Rangers lineup would not be easy. When his contract was up in the summer of 1992, he had a tough choice to make. “Roger Neilsen was the coach back then, and I remember him writing me a real nice letter that summer and it basically was saying that I’ve got a real good chance to make the New York Rangers and have a good chance to kind of get my foot in the door. That was very attractive to me, but I think at the end of the day… I thought that going down to Tampa was something that’s exciting, being part of something that Phil was going to bring down there, and going to a market where hockey wasn’t really on the front page was something that [would] kind of be a trailblazer so to speak. I’m really glad with my choice, although that being said [the Rangers] won the Cup that next year but hindsight’s 20/20. Maybe they won the Cup because I was gone!”
While he jokes that maybe the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994 because he wasn’t there, Zamuner did get a chance to blaze a new trail in Tampa Bay—not only for the sport of hockey but for himself. After signing as a free agent in 1992, his blue collar work ethic won over much of the blue collar workforce in the bay area. He was the only Lightning player to appear in all 84 games that season, and he will forever be linked in Lightning history as the man who set up Chris Kontos’ first goal, the first in Lightning history, on October 7, 1992. “That first game was tough to top… I think just everything being brand new and how we actually started off strong and surprised a lot people. We were a bunch of misfits in a sense because it was guys that all had been castoff from other teams and I think we actually took that as a motivating factor and I thought it was quite an exciting year.”
What started as a fun first season for Zamuner and the team turned in to a lengthy love affair with suddenly the hottest market in the NHL. “People always say, ‘It must be tough to play in a southern market’ but I thought it was quite the opposite in the sense of excitement. For example I remember the one year Bill Houlder took a slap shot and it shattered the glass. I think he was the most popular guy for the first half of the year!” The team saw the love returned by the fans during the 1996 playoff series against Philadelphia, especially in game 3 at the Thunderdome which the Lightning won in overtime 5-4. It was Zamuner’s short-handed goal in the 2nd period that helped the Lightning tie the game at 3 after trailing 3-1 to the Flyers. “It was just an exciting back-and-forth game and to finish it in overtime and to win it in overtime was jexciting. And it felt to me, after going to Buccaneer games, people were out before the game… it felt like a Buccaneer game to me.”
It was a high point for the team and for Zamuner, but after missing the playoffs the following season, the bottom fell out with numerous ownership and management infighting and changes the season after that. The day before the 1998-99 season started, head coach and general manager Jacques Demers named Zamuner team captain. What should have been a glorious personal achievement was everything but, as the Lightning improved just three points from the franchise-worst 1997-98 season. To make matters worse, there was even more turmoil off the ice as new owner Art Williams was ready to sell the team midway through the season. Zamuner had no choice but to keep his chin up and set the example, and he got some help from a teammate he watched as a captain earlier in his career. “Wendel Clark was there when I was a captain… I remember having long conversations with him. Leadership is not a singular thing, it’s a group thing. And the one thing that always stuck out to me that Wendel always told me was, to just be yourself. It’s so difficult when you’re losing, people aren’t happy… winning cures a lot of things. For lack of a better word, losing sucks. We did too much of it that year, and you kind of battle through it.”
Zamuner got through it, and with the change at the top again, he was shipped off to Ottawa for two seasons before ending his NHL career with the Bruins after three seasons. His playing career then took him all over the world from 2004 through 2006 as he played and coached in Switzerland, Italy, and Australia. “I’m very lucky that I have a very understanding wife! In Italy I played in Bolzano, and my father being from Italy I said, ‘What the heck, why not?’ And looking back at it I think my dad was more proud of me playing in Italy than my 15 years in the NHL, it’s quite funny.” After his experience in Brisbane, it was time to return to Canada and make the toughest transition any player makes—not playing hockey any more.
While coaching with the OHL’s Mississauga Ice Dogs, the NHLPA reached out to Zamuner to see if he wanted to be a regional representative, one of six former players to hold the role. He accepted the challenge, and he’s now involved in communicating news, pension education, the concussion board, and he’s part of the administration overseeing the Players’ Emergency Fund—the fund that benefits from league fines which in turn helps former players experiencing hardship after their playing careers are over.
While he enjoys the numerous jobs he does on behalf of today’s players, Zamuner is constantly reminded of the success of hockey here in Tampa Bay. He has maintained a presence in the bay area and occasionally attends games with his children. He’s witnessed many of the ups and downs of the organization, but knows that it’s all “up” from here thanks to the stability in ownership and management. “It’s great to see now that they have an outstanding owner, putting a ton of money in to the community and the way they treat former players now… it’s a first-class organization and first-class people there and I’m glad to see that it’s on the right track.”
Of course the success of today was built on a foundation laid 20 years ago, and Zamuner knows the success of the team wouldn’t have a chance if it wasn’t for the same person who gave him a chance. “I think of Phil, I really do. I don’t think that there’s anyone else that could have somehow brought a team down in Tampa. I don’t think anyone would have believed it. I’m really happy for the fans there, and for Phil, because I really do believe that it took some amazing stick work by him to get a team down there. There was some bumpy parts along the way, but it really does seem like it’s on the right track.”