One thing Kevin Zielmanski always wanted to achieve was a state championship. After coming close year after year, Zielmanski’s team was not quite able to cross the finish line. That is, until this past season when the coach led his team to victory as the Bishop Canevin Crusaders finally won the Class AA 84 Lumber PIHL Penguins Cup.
Kevin Zielmanski is a Pittsburgh native who grew up in Bloomfield. Hockey was popular in his neighborhood, which is where he got his first taste of the sport. As a teenager, Zielmanski and a group of friends pulled together to create Bloomfield Street Hockey League where they would play hockey in the neighborhood basketball courts.
“We just liked to play in our neighborhood,” Zielmanski says. “That’s just what we did.”
In eighth grade, Zielmanski and a few of his friends moved their games over to Schenley Park and the Southside, where the guards would let these young hockey players stick around after closing time to play ball hockey with them. Zielmanski’s love for the game grew, and he decided to pursue ice hockey in high school at Pittsburgh Central Catholic.
More comfortable as a forward, Zielmanski was surprised when his coach Len Semplice put him down as a defenseman on the first day of practice.“He threw the playbook at me, and my life was never the same,” Zielmanski says.
Playing both positions was a huge benefit to Zielmanski.“I liked forward better,” he says. “Defense was a bit of a struggle at first.”Zielmanski was not a strong skater going backwards. “I learned to play the position just by using my reach to cover up for a lot of my mistakes,” he adds. “It just came kind of easy to me.”
Zielmanski continued his hockey career playing at Duquesne where he graduated in 1993. Just a few years later, Zielmanski returned to his alma mater to coach the hockey team for the 1997-98 season. In addition, Zielmanski also coached for his former high school, Central, that year. “I had no free time,” Zielmanski says. “There just isn’t an awful lot of spare time with hockey going from September to March.”
Despite the demanding hours, Zielmanski was still hooked to coaching. He then began his venture with his current team, the Bishop Canevin Crusaders in 2007.
During his coaching experience, Zielmanski had lost seven semifinals, but kept moving forward. “It became harder over the years,” he says. “The sport can wear you down.” But Zielmanski stayed positive.
“Every year is a new group,” he adds. “We have good assistant coaches. That helps too.”
The coach reminds his players not to fall into any bad habits when they are losing.“Sometimes when you are losing, teams deviate from the plan,” he explains. “Individual players can try to do too much. They want to make a move before the pass. They begin not using their teammates. They begin thinking they have to do it themselves.”
Even with the losses, Zielmanski’s team did not go down easily. Five times in the semifinals, his team lost in OT. “It was still excruciating,” Zielmanski says. “I wondered if I had a jinx.”
To push his team forward, Zielmanski encouraged them to overachieve. He feels that the years his team lost, they were the better team that had simply underachieved. Last year, the coach told his team to focus only on that week’s game and to worry about playoffs later. “Focusing on the playoffs so early on made every goal-against a major crisis with people blaming each other,” he says. “It’s a hockey season. You will give up goals. Let’s try to understand what happened and go from there.”
Whatever jinx there may have been disappeared on Sunday, March 20 at the CONSOL Energy Center where Zielmanski’s Crusaders took home the Class AA Penguins Cup against Peters Township. “When you win, it’s more of a relief,” he says. “When you lose, it’s a catastrophe to some people. The guys were fantastic. We had them from the start.”
Zielmanski is not letting this title get to his players’ heads as they are about to begin a new season with new players and new opportunities.“We are no longer the state champs,” he says. “We are a team that wants to win it. This way, this team has to create its own path and achieve its own potentials.”
While he gives his team advice on a daily basis, Zielmanski also learns from his players as well.“They try to lighten the mood and have fun,” he says. “Some come up with good ideas we can use. They keep you in tune with pop culture. They are up on everything.”
Zielmanski claims he was more serious when he was a younger coach because he was a 26-year-old coaching seniors around the age of 18. Over the years, he has learned not to be so regimented and to listen to his players.
Zielmanski’s friends from his hockey days in Bloomfield now have their own kids starting up a young hockey career, and they call their friend asking for advice. “I tell them don’t stress over six- and seven-year-olds playing hockey,” Zielmanski says. “Make sure they are having fun.”
Above all else, the coach admits that what is most fun for him is to see the development in players’ games, and not just the best players. “I get a kick out of seeing a kid on the bench his first couple years to being a senior who plays a regular shift,” he says. “I would also love to do radio and just talk about the game. There is no stress involved, just watching and talking and explaining hockey.”
Zielmanski remembers March when his stress turned into relief as team captain Frank Vance handed him the trophy first.
“We turned heads there,” Zielmanski says. “We finally did it.”