Time was of the essence when Alaska Aces rookie forward Nick Mazzolini flew over the boards for the first shift of his pro career Nov. 6 at Stockton.
He was returning from off-season knee surgery that necessitated he start the year on the injured reserve list. Aces coach Brent Thompson
had a lot of forwards and little time to debate his choices. Mazzolini was on the skate-thin border between a roster spot and unemployment.
"There wasn't any time to grip the stick," he recalled. "I knew I had to make an impression, but I wasn't sure how much of an impression."
Mazzolini didn't take any chances. Before returning to the bench at the end of that debut, he made sure to tally the first assist on an Aces goal. Later in the game, he picked up another helper. The next night, he potted the shootout game-winner.
It wasn't hall of fame material yet, but it put Mazzolini in line to keep cashing paychecks for now, and that's a start.
"As soon as I got back from the road trip, I was like, if I didn't perform there I could have been out," said Mazzolini, 25. "He (Thompson) definitely saw something he liked, so he stuck with me, and I appreciate that."
Here's how Mazzolini expresses his gratitude: his 48 points (19-29) tie him for third among league rookies in scoring. He also represented the National Conference at the ECHL All-Star Game and chipped in 1 goal and 2 assists.
So if Mazzolini happens to go point-less in a game or two these days, he has a pretty good sense of security that he'll be in the lineup the next time around.
"It was an opportunity for him to get the success and run with it, and he took advantage of that opportunity," Thompson said. "Nick has maintained that level of play and played better as the season wore on. He's everything you want in a young guy. He's hungry to improve."
Mazzolini's appetite these days is getting fed with some hometown cooking. He's a native of Anchorage who shares a place with his mom, Kim, and their two shih tzu's, Gizmo and Wicket.
"It was definitely an experiment. But it's worked out pretty well," Nick said of staying within the maternal shadow. "There's no better place to play. I loved it here in Alaska. A lot of people know my name, know my face. Everyone is really supportive of me here."
The appreciation of a native son's success is heightened by how much Mazzolini has journeyed to wind up back where he began.
He played for three teams in the NAHL, Texas, Toledo and Dayton. He then went to college about as far away from Alaska as possible, at Providence.
"I guess it's the way it worked out. After the first year, it desensitizes you," he said of the travel. "It gets you out of the nest. It becomes easier and easier and easier."
The same pattern didn't hold true with his hockey career. Mazzolini was a middle-of-the-pack scorer his first three seasons at Providence, contributing 14, 21 and 16 points, respectively. Problems with the knee limited him to 24 games as a senior, and when his recovery from surgery lingered into the preseason it looked like those might be the last competitive games he ever played.
Mazzolini caught a small break in Peoria's training camp when Thompson got a chance to size him up and liked the coming attractions.
"I think what I saw with Nick was he had a great ability around the net. He's got a real active stick," Thompson said. "You put him in a position where he can score, and he'll bury it. And he's got a good game sense. He put himself on the radar with Peoria. I always wanted him (with the Aces). But I also had a fairness (issue) to the other players."
Mazzolini erased any doubt about his right to some minutes by unwrapping an offensive game that had been missing in college. A flare-up with the knee landed him on the IR to start the season. When he returned, he ripped off 8 goals in a seven-game span to close the month of November. That total was one more than he scored in 24 contests with the Friars last season.
"I think I've always had a bit of a scoring touch," he said. "My game is just more suited for professional hockey. I like to slow things down, see the game, use my hockey sense. I think it's a lot more positional when you get to the pro game. I'm just trying to develop good habits, trying to get in those gritty areas a little more."
The one melancholy side dish to Mazzolini's development is that for someone who is playing in his own back yard he doesn't get to share his success with his family nearly as much as he'd like. Kim's job of working in airport business lounges for Alaska Airlines has her on the road constantly.
Paul, his father, is a drilling supervisor for an oil company that's based in Calgary. Brother Drew attends UNLV and sister Marissa is a student at Washington State. Nick may be the only pro hockey player in the family, but he doesn't have a monopoly on frequent flier miles.
"It was an opportunity for him to get the success and run with it, and he took advantage of that opportunity. Nick has maintained that level of play and played better as the season wore on. He's everything you want in a young guy. He's hungry to improve." -- Aces coach Brent Thompson
"I think it is tough," he said of the separation. "But the fact that we are not together has brought us more together. Our roots are pretty deep here in Alaska. It will always be a gathering ground for us."
Mazzolini might be able to take that show on the road under one circumstance. An AHL debut in some kind of central location -- say, Peoria, for instance -- could be a strong enough pull for a reunion. And Kim's family flight benefits would facilitate the travel.
"We'd definitely have that advantage. I'm pretty sure there'd be at least a few of them there," Mazzolini said. "That's exactly what it might take, making it to a high enough level. I love what I do right now. There's no reason to stop just yet."