Let's play the word association game!
I say, Greg Zanon. You might answer, "tough," "freaky red facial hair," "gritty," or "the Dikembe Mutombo of hockey."
All would be accepted.
The red-bearded Zanon won the hearts of Wild fans last year because of his willingness to throw himself in the flight path of slap shots that would be followed by a bright red laser if there was still such a thing as the FoxTrax glow puck. Night after night, he'd put his body in position to thwart the opposition.
Answering with the words "offense," "power play specialist," or "the best offensive defenseman in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association" would probably get you mocked, unless you're playing the word association game with fans of the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (not likely in these parts).
At the turn of the millennium, those words actually described Zanon perfectly. Yeah, that guy pictured on the left had crazy hair, and crazy offensive touch. In his four seasons as a Maverick, he was an offensive force from the blue line. He put up at least 25 points all four years, and he notched 12 goals during his sophomore campaign.
Like so many offensive-minded blueliners, Zanon found the scoring a lot tougher to come by once he reached the professional ranks. He also found himself at a crossroads as a Milwaukee Admiral in the American Hockey League. His assistant coach at the time wanted to help him. Their stories were similar, and the assistant coach could relate to the struggles Zanon was going through. It was Todd Richards.
"He and I had a conversation one day about his game," remembered Richards. "He was struggling, and didn't know which road to go down. In college, he was playing 30 minutes a game. He was playing power play minutes, penalty killing. He was doing everything. When you get up to the pro level, you're trying to find your niche or your road to the NHL. I think Greg found that road, and obviously turned himself into a solid, solid NHL player."
Perhaps Richards had this advice at the ready because he never tried switching styles during his playing days.
"I didn't want to change, and I was an offensive player and I was a minor league player," admitted Richards. "Maybe if I had changed my game a little bit, I could have been an NHL player."
Zanon remembers the conversation well, and he says it started his transformation into the player he has become today.
"Todd was giving me helpful points on having to make a decision," recalled Zanon. "I was at a point where I was on a team that had five offensive guys. Todd and (Admirals head coach) Claude Noel helped me along on a path to where I could play every night."
They worked with him after practice for five to 10 minutes every day to teach him more about the defensive zone, and where to put himself positionally. Zanon had to fight a battle in his mind about what he did his whole life versus what he was being told would make him into an NHL player.
"I was an offensive guy since I could remember," said Zanon. "But I realized you've got to put your career ahead of what you know. You've got to figure out how to stay, and it took me a half a season of working after practice to figure it out."
Hockey is littered with players who stood head and shoulders above their teammates and competition in the amateur ranks, but couldn't adjust when points were tougher to come by. Zanon pointed at two of his teammates - Eric Nystrom and Kyle Brodziak
- who were offensive players, but realized they had to adjust to earn their NHL stripes.
"You could field every team with all offensive guys," he said. "But everyone has to play a role, and adapt to those roles."
Now in training camp, Zanon is watching as young guys like Nate Prosser
, Marco Scandella
and Maxim Noreau fighting for spots. All three of those players put up points in previous years, but they'll quickly find out it's a lot tougher at the NHL level.
"The biggest piece of advice I try to give to people is to be open-minded," said Zanon, who is never one to shy away from talking to a young player, or really anybody within earshot. It's another trait that Richards admires in his sturdy defenseman.
"He's a warrior, and a consistent performer," said Richards. "But one thing people don't talk about is his leadership. He's constantly talking on the bench, encouraging guys and saying the right things."
That was something Richards didn't have to teach. Zanon had that skill in college, and pretty much every year before that.
"I'm just loud," he chuckled. "I've always been a loud kid, playing catcher in baseball. But coaches preach communication and I think it's a big help when players communicate out there. You can't see all the ice all of the time, so when people are talking, it makes the game a lot easier if you're loud."
If you said "loud," that answer will also be accepted.