Zarley Zalapski, hockey's ZZ Top, had one of the greatest names in NHL history. He also had all the tools to be a great defensemen.
He was big at 6'1" and 210lbs, and tutored under defensive coach extraordinaire Dave King for three years with the Canadian Olympic team program in the late 1980s, though serious back pain slowed his progress.
Offensively he had uncanny skills that no one can teach. His defensive game improved although he frustrated NHL fans anyway by not imposing his size in a physical enough manner. Zalapski simply did not have the temperament to dominate a game with physicality, and ultimately it hurt his overall game. Too often he got caught playing the puck instead of taking the body.
The key to his game was his skating, as he was a tremendous skater, blessed with speed, power and agility. He always had great instincts as to when to jump into the rush and when not to.
Zalapski was drafted 4th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1986. With his size and skating ability, and with Dave King's influence, expectations were high once Zalapski joined the NHL following the 1988 Olympic games. The Edmonton-born defenseman was so highly thought of even the Oilers could not pry him out of Pittsburgh as part of the big Paul Coffey trade.
joined the Canadian team in '85-86 out of Tier Two junior hockey and immediately impressed everyone, especially the Penguins. But he had made the commitment to the Olympic team and to himself to see the project through to the Games. When they drafted him, the Pens knew that and while GM Ed Johnston respected 's decision, he did make an effort to change his mind.
"The Olympic team helped me get to be a first-round draft choice and the Penguins, I hope, will be my team for a long time.
"I needed a little more time to develop as a person and as a hockey player. I might as well stay here and play against better competition and travel the world."
With youngsters Zalapski and Trent Yawney anchoring the blue line and studs Sean Burke and Andy Moog falling in to place in net, Dave King had a nice nucleus to build around.
The team really came together at the 1987 Izvestia tournament in Moscow where Zalapski, just 18 years old, was named as the top defenseman. Canada upset the heavily favored home side, becoming the first Canadian team to win a game in Russia since 1972.
After that the expectations rose for Team Canada, perhaps unfairly. When team chemistry was disrupted by the parachuting in of some depth NHL players, the team never quite found it's mojo in Calgary and finished in fourth place, just out of the medals.
The next year Zalapski moved on to the NHL. Zalapski was showing signs of achieving his potential after three seasons in Pittsburgh, but he was a key piece of the big trade that brought Ron Francis, Grant Jennings and Ulf Sameulsson from Hartford. That trade, which saw Zalapski, John Cullen and Jeff Parker go to Hartford, turned out to be terribly lopsided, as the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup the following two years. The Whalers, without their franchise player Francis, lost their soul and soon would move to Carolina.
Zalapski put up solid numbers in his first two seasons in Hartford. In 1991-92 he scored career highs with 20 goals and 57 points. The following year he improved to 65 points, thanks to 14 goals and 51 assists. He was the Whalers' all star game representative in 1993.
Yet all was not right in Hartford. Because the famous trade was so lopsided, and because the team struggled so mightily after Ron Francis' departure, there was a lot of pressure placed on Zalapski. Because of the franchise's troubles maybe he was never really appreciated like he should have been.
Late in the 1993-94 season Zalapski was traded along with James Patrick and Michael Nylander in exchange for Gary Suter, Paul Ranheim and Ted Drury. Zalapski's offense dried up in Calgary. He played solidly enough, but his lack of production was not what Calgary had hoped for. They had acquired Zalapski's point shot knowing that Al MacInnis' days in Calgary were likely to come to an end. When MacInnis left in 1994-95, Zalapski was unable to fill in for the legendary power play point shooter.
A terrible knee injury forced Zalapski to miss all but two games in the 1996-97 season. The resulting surgery took away much of Zalapski's mobility, rendering him a liability at the NHL level. More injuries limited him to just a combined total of 75 games over the next three NHL seasons. By 1999 he was a minor league player struggling to find his game. He was clearly unable to keep up with the speed of the NHL game. He even was being used as a forward at times.
A proud athlete, Zalapski headed to Europe in 2000. Playing for six season in Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Austria, it was a great move as he was able to find his passion for the game again and enjoy the game once again.