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Playoffs Worth the Wait for Harry Zolnierczyk

Nearly 30-Year-Old Forward Considered Quitting Hockey While in the Minors

by John Glennon @glennonsports / glennonsports@gmail.com

There were times during the last couple of years, Nashville Predators forward Harry Zolnierczyk admits, when he considered pulling the plug on professional hockey.

He'd played a grand total of three NHL games during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, spending much of that time grinding away for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL.

What were the chances he'd ever have another extended stay on the NHL level, Zolnierczyk wondered? He was, after all, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound forward who'd never been drafted - one who was creeping toward 30 years old.

"Playing in the minors, when ultimately your main goal is to get to the NHL, it can be frustrating," Zolnierczyk said. "It can kind of make you question things and if you want to keep things going, stuff like that."

Had he chosen to hang up the skates, Zolnierczyk had a pretty good Plan B in place.

Turns out he's a Brown University graduate, one with an economics degree to fall back on. Plenty of the guys Zolnierczyk hung out with in college are banking on Wall Street or profiting from the West Coast's tech-wave.

"How long," Zolnierczyk would occasionally think to himself, "are you going to keep playing hockey with a degree in your pocket?"

But as is often the case with those who've always had to scratch and claw for their place in the game - the underappreciated and overlooked - Zolnierczyk found it impossible to mute the passion before exhausting every last opportunity to advance.

"I just love playing the game," Zolnierczyk said.

So when the chance presented itself to sign with the Predators last summer, Zolnierczyk jumped at it. The team was coached by Peter Laviolette, who'd given Zolnierczyk his longest stint in the NHL - 37 games during the 2011-12 season - when both were with the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

An undrafted player who bounced around the minors for many years himself, Laviolette respected not only Zolnierczyk's skills, but his perseverance and personality as well.

"This is a guy that every day wakes up and is a positive person," Laviolette said. "He's a positive influence. He's a positive person himself, but has a positive impact on others as well."

Laviolette knew Zolnierczyk wasn't going to be the type to sulk if he wasn't in the lineup, which was the case for 14 of the Preds' final 16 regular-season games as Nashville tinkered with an abundance of forwards.

Video: The Preds try to spell Harry Zolnierczyk's last name

Sure enough, Zolnierczyk kept the mood light and his teammates smiling.

"He's really got a ton of energy in anything he does in life," Preds teammate Colton Sissons said. "He's a great glue guy in the locker room. He's always excited, always super positive. You need those guys in your locker room to keep the boys positive. He's been a great teammate."

It was somewhat of a surprise that Zolnierczyk was in the Preds' lineup for the playoff opener against Chicago, as he'd never played an NHL postseason game in his life. But the move made sense considering two of Zonierczyk's strengths - speed and tenacity - were important in Nashville's plan to heavily forecheck the Blackhawks.

What was even a bigger surprise occurred in Game Two, when Zolnierczyk, less than five months shy of his 30th birthday, scored his first NHL playoff goal. It was a sniper's shot, one that zipped over Chicago goalie Corey Crawford's shoulder during the Preds' 5-0 battering of the Blackhawks last Saturday.

"It feels like I was waiting a long time for that," Zolnierczyk said. "I've spent a lot of time in the minors and it was nice to see it kind of pay off and finally turn around this year. Then to have an impact in the playoffs is a dream come true."

Video: NSH@CHI, Gm2: Zolnierczyk goes bar-down on breakaway

Added Sissons: "We were all ecstatic on the bench - when you see a guy like that, that's worked so hard for such a long time, to get his first playoff taste. It's getting a little bit later in his career, and he's scoring a big goal. There's nothing better than that."

The odds are good Zolnierczyk will be back in the lineup Thursday at Bridgestone Arena, when the Predators look to complete a four-game sweep of Chicago and advance to the Second Round.

Watch closely during the Preds' warm-ups and you might just see Zolnierczyk singing and dancing to the pre-game music, cracking up teammates around him.

He just can't seem to help himself.

"I wasn't a high draft pick or a top prospect, so it seems like my whole career I've always had to kind of sneak in the backdoor," Zolnierczyk said. "So you really appreciate the days that you get up here [in the NHL]. When you're able to stick around full time … it's been a lot of fun."

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