Minor League Sports

Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and the Zmolek brothers have been a perfect fit for each other

Cedar Rapids begins USHL playoff series Saturday night against Chicago

Will Zmolek
Will Zmolek

CEDAR RAPIDS — Take Highway 63 south.

You’ll hit a bunch of towns in Southern Minnesota before you get to the Iowa border. You’ll hit a bunch more towns in Northern Iowa until eventually you run into Highway 218 for a bit.

Then it’s I-380 and smooth sailing from there.

It’s about a three-hour drive from Rochester, Minn., to Cedar Rapids. No one knows that better than Doug and Jennifer Zmolek, because they’ve been making it regularly for four years.

With likely another couple on the horizon.

Their son, Riese, played for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 season. Their son, Will, played for the Riders last season and is on a team this season that plays Saturday and Sunday at Chicago in a best-of-5 United States Hockey League Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series.

Youngest boy, Bennett, joined the club on a full-time basis recently after his high-school season concluded. The RoughRiders and the Zmoleks have been a perfect fit for each other.

“I’m just thrilled that they’ve been able to play there,” Doug Zmolek said. “I really enjoy how they are treated there. I really enjoy how they develop there. I’ll tell you this: the boys have been around the house a long time. When they leave and come home over the different summers, after having been with the RoughRiders and (Coach) Mark Carlson, they just have a different level of work ethic. I’m just very thankful. Jennifer and I really enjoy your town and really enjoy coming down and watching the RoughRiders. It’s true excitement, it’s very fun for us, and we are very fortunate.”

Doug Zmolek was a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota North Stars in 1989 and played 467 games in the National Hockey League. He was a defensive defenseman, which is how you’d probably describe Riese, Will and Bennett as players.

They play hard, they play physical, they stick up for their teammates on the ice.

“They are great character people,” Carlson said. “They work extremely hard. They are mentally and physically tough, are great teammates. And, obviously, they all are very good at the game of hockey. You add it all up, and for us it has been a no-brainer, has been extremely enjoyable. It’s a great family, and it’s all a credit to the parents, Doug and Jenny.”

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Riese Zmolek recently completed his sophomore season at Minnesota State, which is where Bennett has committed. Will will play next year at Bemidji State.

Riese and Will played one year together at Rochester’s Century High School, and this is the first time Will and Bennett have ever played together. It was neat to see them killing penalties together late in Tuesday night’s playoff win over Team USA and to see them paired on defense later in the game.

“Obviously it’s cool,” Will Zmolek said. “I was fortunate enough to get to play with Riese one year but have never gotten to play with Bennett. Playing with him is awesome, so fun. Having a roommate, me and my brother we’ve kind of bonded right away. We’ve always been close. I’ve just tried to take him under my wing. He has done a terrific job. It’s been like a dream, basically.”

Bennett — or “Booter,” as is his nickname — is making the adjustment of going from prep hockey to the USHL, being away from home for the first time and doing his Century High School schoolwork via online lessons. Having a brother around to help him in any and every way has been a huge advantage, he said.

“We get along well,” Bennett said. “Barely any fights.”

So has his previous experience of being at The Stable over the years, taking that familiar route down Highway 63 with his parents.

“Oh, yeah, that helped me a lot,” he said. “To see the atmosphere, all the great fans. It’s unreal.”

There is one more Zmolek left, but she won’t be playing for the RoughRiders. Probably.

Notice the ‘she’ there? Ella Zmolek is a seventh-grader who prefers volleyball and basketball over hockey, though her brothers have taught her how to skate.

“The USHL has been such a neat experience for our family, for our boys,” Doug Zmolek said. “We’re just very fortunate to have stumbled upon that. It’s a very tough league to compete in, you have to be very consistent. The thing that maybe brings a tear to my eye, or the hair stand up on my arms, is just their ability to kind of step up and try to play every night. It’s a grind, it’s not easy. Just very cool to watch them play.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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