116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — If the progression of Riese Zmolek’s hockey career stays on this geographic path, he’s going to end up some day in the National Hockey League.
Check this out.
The 25-year-old defenseman for the Iowa Heartlanders is from Rochester, Minn. He played two years of junior hockey with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, then went back to Minnesota for college, playing four years for Minnesota State in Mankato.
The Mavericks made it to last year’s Frozen Four.
Zmolek then signed a professional contract over the summer with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League, the sport’s top minor league. He didn’t make that club initially and is beginning this season with the Heartlanders, who play their first-ever home game Friday night at Xtream Arena in Coralville against the Kansas City Mavericks.
So you get the symmetry here. Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota to Iowa to … someday back to Minnesota and the NHL’s Wild. It’s gotta be.
“Blessed to be able to play pro hockey, to play after college,” Zmolek said. “I’m very happy. Pretty familiar place as well.”
Zmolek said most of his professional offers after college were from ECHL clubs. When an AHL deal came along, one from an affiliate of his home-state NHL team, he had to take it.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder comes from a hockey family. His father, Doug, played 467 games in the NHL for various clubs after being a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota North Stars in 1989.
Riese’s brothers both also played junior for the RoughRiders and are playing college hockey right now: Will with Bemidji State and Bennett with Minnesota State. They are similar players, tough customers who take care of their own end of the ice first.
“Just a physical, defensive defenseman,” Riese said, when asked to describe himself. “Nothing really special offensively. I try to get the forwards the puck, let them do their thing. Try to get them clean out of our zone and get them working.”
Heartlanders Coach Gerry Fleming said Zmolek needs to be able to incorporate more offense into his game if he wants to climb the professional ladder.
“We want him to play the game without the puck as much as with the puck,” Fleming said. “He wants to focus on his offense a little bit, but we want him to focus on the process of getting better every day. Use his assets to his advantage, while also working on the things he needs to improve in his game. That’s what we are going to help him with.”
Fleming was asked what he’s seen from Zmolek thus far in a week of practice and a preseason game.
“Strong player, smart player, so we’re going to use him, use those assets to his advantage,” Fleming said. “We just want him to be a complete player. If he is going to play beyond this level and hopefully aspire to play in the NHL, which he does, he’s going to play in that bottom-six role. Being a good penalty killer, just all those things, those bottom-six guys have to do consistently well night in and night out.”
Zmolek said he was disappointed in not being with the Iowa Wild right away, but is relishing the opportunity to prove himself in the ECHL with the Heartlanders.
“You want to keep going, obviously. Keep getting to the top,” he said. “But the coaching staff here does an unbelievable job trying to develop me and getting me where I need to go. It’s a good opportunity, and I’m happy to be here and to get to work.”
He said he appreciated his previous time in Iowa. Zmolek was the United States Hockey League’s 2017 co-recipient of the Curt Hammer Award, which goes to the player who “distinguishes himself both on the off the ice by demonstrating outstanding performance skills, leadership, pride and determination.”
Once again, the hope is Minnesota-Iowa-Minnesota-Iowa-Minnesota.
“Coach (Mark) Carlson does an unbelievable job developing guys on and off the ice,” Zmolek said. “It’s not only for hockey, but if you can’t play hockey anymore, just that respect on and off the ice. He kind of taught that work ethic, too, teaches that a lot. You don’t see that too often anymore.
“I loved that he pushes you to be the best you can be. You can’t ask for any more out of a junior spot, you know?”
The Heartlanders announced their opening-night roster Thursday. It consists of two goaltenders, eight defensemen and nine forwards.
Two are property of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild: goaltender Hunter Jones and defenseman Fedor Gordeev.
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