FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

BY: Bruce Berlet

Matt Zaba didn’t particularly enjoy his last season playing goal in North America.

While the Hartford Wolf Pack, now Connecticut Whale, were missing the playoffs for the only time in the franchise’s 14 seasons in 2009-10, Zaba was battling injuries, bouncing around the AHL and ECHL and being an occasional backup with the New York Rangers after Steve Valiquette was demoted and eventually sidelined for the season with an injury.

“There were a lot of things that happened,” Zaba said during a break in workouts this week at the sixth annual Pete Asadourian Pro Hockey Camp at Champions Skating Center. “I got hurt early and Chad (Johnson) played so well, so I kind of lost my position. To be honest, I had a bad training camp in New York, didn’t have a good training camp in Hartford and then didn’t start off the season very well. So it seemed to take me a while to find my game that second year and got sent to Charlotte (in the ECHL). Then once I did find my game, I’d be back on the goalie carousel to New York.

“It was just a very tough year, almost exhausting mentally, but I still have no regrets. I really liked Hartford and the organization because they gave me a chance to realize my dream, so I can’t say anything bad. It’s more or less the nature of pro sports, but personally I needed to get away and try something new.”

The negatives soon turned into plenty of positives thanks to Scott Owens, Zaba’s coach at Colorado College, who had a connection with HC Balzano, one of the premier teams in the Italian Elite League that was looking for a goalie.

“I didn’t really have anything going last summer as I was a free agent,” Zaba said. “So I thought that since I didn’t really have much here in North America and hadn’t had a good year previously that it might be a good time to make a change and try something new.”

Zaba got hooked up with several players with AHL experience, including Colton Fretter who had played in Springfield and Portland, and a number of good local players who competed for Italy in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. Past Bolzano players have included former Rangers captain and future Hockey Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, former Wolf Pack and Rangers players Jamie Lundmark and Jason Muzzatti, former Hartford Whalers defenseman James Black, former Wolf Pack forward Tony Tuzzolini, former NHL standouts Glenn Anderson, Mark Napier and Ron Flockhart and former Yale defenseman and Bridgeport Sound Tigers coach Dave Baseggio.

“We had a real strong team,” Zaba said. “Balzano has a great rich tradition of being the winningest franchise in Italian hockey history, so it made it a lot of fun to play there.”

Zaba and Balzano reached Game 7 of the playoff semifinals, losing to 2009 champion Asiago, whose top players included former Wolf Pack forward Layne Ulmer. Zaba sat out only five games all season, finishing with a 25-12-0 record, 2.09 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and four shutouts.

“It was a tough series,” Zaba said. “We thought we should have advanced, but in Game 7 you never know what can happen.”

Zaba said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience and even got to spend some down time with his fiancée, Lauren Wotherspoon, who is from Stafford Springs and works for ESPN in Bristol. The couple bought a condominium in Kensington this summer, and Lauren again will make occasional visits to Italy to be with Matt during the season.

“She loves her job, so Connecticut is kind of home now,” said Zaba, who normally would have returned to Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Canada. “So I’m just going to do this year by year, see what happens and use it as a way to travel and see the world.”

Zaba is scheduled to return to Italy in the next two weeks, and the Bolzano season starts in late September. The team practices on Monday and Tuesday, and a 40-game schedule is played on Thursdays and Saturdays in northern Italy. Zaba earns about $100,000, which was more than he made in each of his two seasons with the Wolf Pack, and he has all his expenses paid except for food and leisure activities. The perks even include paying for Lauren’s flight to Italy to visit.

“It’s a nice change of pace and was a great life experience going to a foreign country and getting to do lots of traveling,” Zaba said. “Balzano has the highest budget in the league, and it was a good way to kind of set yourself up a little bit if you didn’t really make much money if you’re an East Coast League guy or on an AHL two-way deal.

“I drove around a lot and got to see all kinds of landmarks. Italy is an amazing country with the history they have. Going to Rome was absolutely amazing, and I really liked (visiting) Paris. I’ve got a lot more places to see this year, but it’s a great way to travel and work and see a different part of the world that I probably wouldn’t get to do otherwise.”

Zaba said he’s undecided if he’ll return to play in North America, though he could follow in the footsteps of Dov Grumet-Morris, who played two years in Austria to try to improve his stock and ended up excelling with the Whale last season, when he was voted MVP by his teammates but not re-signed because the Rangers had several young goalies already in the fold.

“I’m happy, and maybe after this season I’ll look at things, though I don’t know what the prospects are like to come back to the AHL,” Zaba said. “You probably have to have a good situation like Dov did last year when he worked his way up to a call-up. But I had such a fun year there in my first year that I thought I’d go back and give it another year. And the way the AHL is going, it’s getting to be a lot younger league, so once you become of veteran status, you have to find the right fit in the right organization, especially being a 28-year-old goalie.

“They want to develop their own guys, and probably for me or someone like Dov, we’d probably be considered past prospects status, so it becomes kind of a numbers game. But it kind of sucks because Dov probably deserves to be re-signed by New York.”

But Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron are ticketed for New York, with Johnson, Cam Talbot and youngsters Jason Missiaen and Scott Stajcer vying for the jobs in Hartford. Johnson struggled much of last season before being called up to caddie for Lundqvist after Biron sustained a season-ending collarbone injury when hit by a shot in practice on Feb. 28. Johnson got plenty of practice against NHL competition but played only one period the rest of the season.

“I think what happened with Chad is that the first six weeks of his first season in Hartford he was one of the best goalies in the AHL,” Zaba said. “Then that whole situation with Valiquette being sent down (to try to regain his form) probably messed with Chad’s head. I think it would have been a lot easier for him to just stay in Hartford and ride out that hot streak. Then that next year he would have come right in being very well established as a starting goalie in Hartford.

“I think that would have been a great thing for him, but it’s hard to stay confident when you’re not really in the net. Confidence in practice is one thing, but when you get into game situations, it’s seeing the game and reading the play, and it usually takes a little while to really feel comfortable. But he’s too good not to bounce back.”

As Zaba did thousands of miles away in Italy and worked on trying to continue his comeback at the Asadourian camp that ends Friday night with a scrimmage from 6-8 p.m. among about 30 players. A $2 donation will be collected at the door, and there will be autographs before and after the scrimmage, silent auction items and a player memorabilia raffle.

FORMER WOLF PACK CENTER HEADED TO ITALY TO COACH

After camp scrimmages end each day, the Junior Wolf Pack take the ice for practice, and one of their coaches is former Wolf Pack center Mike Harder, a member of the 1999-2000 team that won the Calder Cup.

After graduating from Colgate University in 1994, Harder played seven pro seasons in North America before heading to Europe for most of the next eight seasons, the last four with Alleghe HC in Italy. In 2009-10, he played for Charlotte and Trenton in the ECHL before retiring and then working one year at an animal sanctuary in Upstate New York.

Harder is now prepping for his pro coaching debut with Cortina in the Italian Elite League, where the opposition will include HC Balzano.

“I got the job through connections I made while playing in Italy,” Harder said.

Then while talking with Zaba, Harder offered one of his usual impish smiles and said, “I’m going to send my guys out after him. I even signed a tough guy just for that job.”

Zaba also smiled, knowing how Harder seems made to do standup comedy and had some of the best one-liners in Wolf Pack/Whale history. … Lundmark, the Rangers’ second first-round pick (ninth overall) in 1999, has signed with Dynamo Riga in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Lundmark, who played parts of three seasons in Hartford, has 40 goals and 55 assists in 295 NHL games with the Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs. The much-traveled, 30-year-old also has played with six AHL teams and in Italy, Russia and Sweden. … After two seasons in Switzerland with the A Division Kloten Flyers, former Wolf Pack wing Mark Bell has signed a two-way contract with the Anaheim Ducks. “I’m getting another chance in North America, and that’s all I wanted, and that’s what Anaheim is giving me,” Bell said. “So I’m just looking forward to going with it. … (The Ducks) have said I have a legitimate shot at making the team, and that’s all I can ask for at this point. If it doesn’t happen right away, I know it’s a long season, and I’ll prove to them that I need to be in the NHL. If I do happen to go down to the American League (Syracuse Crunch) for a couple of months, then that’s the way it goes.” In 51/2 NHL seasons with Chicago, San Jose and Toronto, Bell has 87 goals and 95 assists in 445 games. In Kloten, he had 29 goals and 23 assists in 80 games. … Greenwich native and former Yale standout Sean Backman signed a one-year, two-way deal with the New York Islanders, the parent club of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Backman, 25, had seven goals and 16 assists in 67 games with the Texas Stars as a pro rookie last season and added two goals and two assists in five games with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads. He was ECAC co-rookie of the year as a freshman at Yale and captained the Bulldogs in his senior year (2009-10). He had 77 goals and 49 assists in 122 games at Yale. … Left wing Justin Vaive, the son of longtime NHL player Rick Vaive, has signed with the San Antonio Rampage. Vaive joins the Rampage from Miami of Ohio University, where he had 23 goals and 23 assists in 160 games over four seasons. He also had eight goals and nine assists in 39 games over two seasons with the U.S. National Under-18 team and helped Team USA earn second place in the 2006 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Regina, Saskatchewan, with three goals and four assists in seven games.

WSE EXECUTIVE TO BE HONORED

Howard Baldwin, president and CEO of Whalers Sports and Entertainment, will receive the Connecticut Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s 2011 Community Leader of the Year Award at its Sportscasters’ Super Ball Nov. 12 at The Club at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

The black-tie gala honors state sports stars and community leaders while raising money and awareness for Cystic Fibrosis. The gala was established in 2002 by ESPN’s Joe Tessier and Chris Berman to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and includes dinner, dancing and a live auction.

“Howard Baldwin is the definition of a community leader,” said Paul Drury, director of special projects at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “He brings people together, simple as that. The Winter Fest at Rentschler Field last February is a perfect example. There were pee wee, high school and NHL alumni games, and thousands of fans to watch. But most importantly, he gives back to the community he believes in.”

Past Community Leader honorees have included philanthropist Mark Wilson, The Hartford CFO Liz Zlatkus, Open Solutions CEO Louis Hernandez and IAE President Jon Beatty. Former sports honorees have included: Geno Auriemma, Jen Rizzotti, Jim Brown, Steve Young, Brian Leetch, Luis Tiant and Dwight Freeney.

For tickets ($200) or to get involved with the foundation, contact Drury at 860-632-7300 or pdrury@cff.org

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