The common theme throughout Greg Zanon’s transition from college to the professional ranks has been “adapt and overcome.”
Coming out of Langley, B.C., Zanon originally planned to take the major junior hockey route, most likely honing his skills in the Western Hockey League by playing 70-plus games a season, practicing infrequently, and withstanding a brutal travel schedule that includes frequently making 10 and 11-hour bus trips across the frozen western Canadian plains.
But to his surprise, the now 5-11, 211-pound defenseman received more positive reviews than he expected playing for Victoria and South Surrey of the British Columbia (Junior “A”) Hockey League, leading to a scholarship offer from newly-started Division I program and the University of Nebraska-Omaha of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
“I was recruited by UNO and it was different starting something new
|Zanon fights off San Jose's Mike Grier in last season's playoffs. |
instead of going somewhere that was established,” Zanon said of the program, which he helped start in 1999. “I felt it would be a good program where I would play a lot and I would get a lot of exposure in my first couple years as compared to some other places.”
Off the ice, he majored in finance banking, on it, he emerged as a solid offensive contributor, manning the Maverick blue line in virtually every possible situation. Zanon still stands as the all-time leader among UNO defensemen in goals, assists and points, piling up 107 points (30g-77a) in 154 games. He also racked up conference all-rookie honors in 1999-00 and was named the CCHA’s best offensive defenseman the following year. He was also a two-time all-conference and all-America selection.
“I hated school growing up but it was a decision I made, and a couple of buddies were going with me so it made the decision easier,” Zanon said. “It ended up being the right decision.”
Zanon was scheduled to finish the one class he needed to graduate the summer following his senior year, but it was dropped and he never got the opportunity to make it up. He said as soon as his hockey career is over, he intends to get his degree.
After four successful years of college in the corn fields of Nebraska, Zanon was set to be a trailblazer for his alma mater, but it wasn’t exactly the path he expected it to be when he was drafted by Ottawa in the sixth round (156th overall) of the 2000 Entry Draft. The Senators front office decided Zanon’s style did not fit what they needed in their developmental system, and therefore did not offer him a contract for the 2003-04 season, leaving him without a place to play.
“We kind of split ways – I went to camp without a contract and we had something in the works, but they weren’t happy with it and didn’t think I deserved a contract so they let me go,” Zanon said. “I guess they saw me as someone they didn’t need and that was probably because back when I was coming out of college I was looked upon more as an offensive guy, which has changed since I came into this organization, and I think that has been the right move.”
And change he did. Zanon caught on with Milwaukee and earned an AHL contract for his first pro season, and began his transformation into the polar opposite of an offensive blueliner – a stay-at-home defenseman. Thanks to the help of Admirals head coach Claude Noel and assistant Todd Richards, Zanon slowly developed his “d” skills as the season progressed. He was a healthy scratch and received limited ice time in the early goings of the season, but found his niche a couple months in.
|Zanon captained Milwaukee to the Calder Cup finals in 2005-06. |
“Claude and Todd, helped a lot before and after practice with things I needed to do, and once I started playing it was quite the ride,” Zanon said. “We had a good mix of young players and older guys, so it was a good mix, especially for your first year as a pro.”
The road Zanon refers to is the Admirals 16-6 record in the AHL Playoffs, good for the franchise’s first Calder Cup as American League champions. Zanon manned the blue line for all 22 contests, notching a team-best plus-10 rating, in addition to eight points (2g-6a).
“It was a different experience for sure,” he said. “Winning a championship was awesome – it was a struggle at the beginning of the year because I found myself not playing with the guys we had, and that is when I had to go through the process of changing my game.”
The changes earned Zanon his first NHL contract that summer, as he inked a two-way deal with the Predators between Nashville and Milwaukee. He used lockout season of 2004-05 to continue to develop the skills necessary for a more defensive role, and came to better appreciate what a stay-at-homer brings to the table, despite it not always showing up on the score sheet.
“I have always been a shot blocker, but never much of a stay-at-home guy,” Zanon said. “Coming out of college I didn’t think I would be in that situation, I figured I’d be running the power play and on the scoresheet a lot more than just for blocking shots. But it was either stay with the way I was and not play hockey or be on the bench a lot more than the ice, or try to get to where I was playing 20 minutes a night. It was just a transition I had to make for my position and my career.”
2005-06 was a landmark season for Zanon, as he made his NHL debut Dec. 1, recording his first assist/point in a 2-1 victory over Minnesota, in addition to being named captain of an Admirals squad that made it back to the Calder Cup finals.
“I think Claude saw some leadership traits in me, and we were quite a young team, so I was one of the older guys at 26,” Zanon said. “It was an honor and hard work as well, but I think and hope I did a good job – we went all the way even though we didn’t win it. I just tried to lead by example and try to do the right things all the time.”
He played his first four NHL contests that season, and navigated the Admirals ship within two wins of another championship, setting the stage for a big 2006-07 campaign.
Thought to be the team’s seventh defensemen – a spot that frequently finds a player watching the game from the press box rather than the bench if everyone is healthy – or even back in the minors, Zanon had to once again overcome some early-season adversity. In the third period of Nashville’s opening-night match with Chicago, Zanon suffered a blow to the head, landing him on the injured reserve list with a concussion.
Many expected him not to break back into a highly-skilled roster that accumulated 110 regular-season points, but after 12 games on the shelf and a one-game conditioning assignment in Milwaukee, Zanon finally got the chance he was waiting for to make an impression on the Preds coaching staff.
“What he does is he has a good awareness, a good stick, and obviously the ability to block shots and read plays – and we needed all those qualities on our defense,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “A lot of the success we do have, especially on the penalty kill he will be involved in.”
Zanon went on to lead the Predators in blocked shots, and ranked eighth
|Zanon at a photo shoot at this year's training camp |
in the NHL with 189. His solid play earned him a two-year contract in the summer of 2007, and more responsibility heading into the 2007-08 season with the departure of Kimmo Timonen from last year’s squad.
“You see the way he has gone through training camp – he is relaxed and is very confident,” Trotz said. “There aren’t as many jitters. He came in this year with the feeling that he belongs here, but not necessarily an entitlement. He is going to be a big part to our team this year.”
Rather than living for the roar of the crowd when he tallies or sets up a power play goal, Zanon now gets the greatest satisfaction out of the little things that he knows gets noticed, but aren’t nearly as glamorous.
“If I can block a shot, it is a great feeling keeping pucks out of our net, or even a big penalty kill is great – especially a five-on-three during a crucial time of the game to get the guys going,” he said. “If we can kill it off, and do anything to keep pucks out of the net it is very gratifying.”