New Hartford Hockey Pro Slashes Lucrative NHL Dreams for Life in Mohawk Valley
Steve Zalewski has tallied 100-plus goals as a professional hockey player. Today, the New Hartford native has traded his sticks and skates for a tool belt.
There are no regrets or second-guessing the decision.
Understanding that everything has a beginning and an end, Zalewski enjoyed the ride. Although being called up from the AHL Worcester Sharks during the 2009-'10 season to make his NHL debut with San Jose (3 games), and tasting hockey's "Best of the Best" two seasons later with the New Jersey Devils (7) games, the routine was always the same for this Clarkson University graduate.
There was little Zalewski was in control of. Being traded, when to be on the bus for road trips, what time to show for morning skates, being on a tight schedule was not unusual but the norm. That was then. After skating in his last game in 2018 in Germany with the Straubing Tigers, Zalewski and his wife were ready for the next chapter of their lives.
By choice, the Zalewskis returned to the Mohawk Valley.
Joining the family contracting business of Kershaw & Zalewski came natural for the former pro who's career included skating two seasons in Finland.
"I guess so," Zalewski explains of his comfortability being around a work site. "I was exposed to (contracting) at a young age. My brothers kept me busy with tools around the house. After a while I immersed myself into learning the business."
Six seasons split between AHL cities Albany and Worcester, a half dozen seasons in Europe, setting down roots was increasingly being talked about by the Zalewskis. With both being from the Mohawk Valley, and with when Liane Zalewski's career choice allowed for her to work remotely, there would be not be much debate on where to set up permanent residency.
"We bought a home here when I was still playing," Zalewski said earlier this week during a telephone conversation. "We knew we wanted to be close to our families, after being away for so long."
Before house hunting locally, Zalewski, drafted 153rd overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by San Jose, confides that Boston and "near" New York City were considered.
But, along with working in the family business, once a hockey player, always a hockey player. Zalewski has two children (son & daughter). Although, at times, Zalewski may feel far removed from the game, seeing his 5-year-old son already taking an interest in being on skates brings him back to where the future may lie.
"My next (hockey) chapter is to coach my son. But, for now, I still play in a men's league in New Hartford and in Whitesboro."
After the buzzer sounded in 2018, in Zalewski's final game with the Tigers, the 10-year pro knew it would be his last.
"To be honest, I was ready to come home. There was always a lot going on, in getting ready to leave for the next season. That was the toughest part - leaving," said Zalewski.
Missing the competitiveness that hockey brought Zalewski is still something the former pro is working out of his system. The men's league games are helping alleviate this - slowly. Zalewski tells of being off his skates for 18 months in recent times, which is the longest break ever from being on the ice for him.
"I felt a little awkward," Zalewski admits. " As a pro, one or two days off the ice, and I felt rusty."
Through hockey, Steve and Laine shared many bonuses in life. Traveling overseas is at the top of their list. Experiencing the different cultures is a gift that keep on giving. During the 2017-18 season in Germany, Zalewski was given the opportunity to be a teammate of his younger brother Mike. With all their college and pro seasons, this is the first and only time the brothers would be suiting up in the same locker room.
"Mike's six years younger than me," recalls Zalewski of that special season in the Germany league.
Skating in Germany had some differences from the NHL, or AHL for that matter, for Zalewski to warm up to. All of Straubing's games were played in Germany. The longest bus ride, according to Zalewski, was about nine hours. With a lighter schedule than can be expected with the NHL and AHL, the frequent breaks allotted for more time for the body to recovery from in-game injuries.
But, between looking back to working on learning different languages while traveling around Europe, and living and playing in Albany with fellow Mohawk Valley hockey standouts Tim Sestito and Nick Palmieri, there is no fog when remembering how the call came informing Zalewski that he was NHL bound.
"I was with Worcester. We (Sharks) were headed to a team building trip somewhere up the coast in Maine. It's 5:00 a.m., and I find out that I'm not going to the deserted island," Zalewski laughs. "I'll be taking a flight to meet with San Jose."
Between work and family, Zalewski does life's balancing requirements remarkably well, and still manages to work in some of his former profession on TV. He caught some of the recent NHL Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a sampling of the Stanley Cup Finals. As for attending games, and being part of the cheering galley, for now, Zalewski is leaning towards attending Utica Comets' games. Two years earlier, Steve and Liane brought their son to his first Comets games.
For now, it's a hard hat instead of a helmet, and skates have been replaced by work boots. There is no doubt that that in his "second career", Zalewski will continue to lead, be a tremendous teammate, and not be looking for recognition while doing so. That's what hockey 101 teaches.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.