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Rochester's Riese Zmolek savoring perks of playing hockey in Florida, winning ECHL championship

Jun. 9—Riese Zmolek had never played competitive hockey in June.

When captaining the Minnesota State University, Mankato, men's hockey team to the NCAA Division I Frozen Four as a senior in 2020-21, that season came to a close in early April.

The 2015 Rochester Century graduate had played into mid-May once in junior hockey, when the Austin Bruins reached the North American Hockey League's championship finals, the Robertson Cup.

But that was nothing like this.

A 74-game regular season (of which Zmolek missed 19), followed by 23 more games in the ECHL playoffs (of which Zmolek missed none).

"I think at this point, it's more mental, trying to tell yourself you're feeling good," Zmolek said with a laugh.

Zmolek doesn't have to trick himself into feeling good anymore.

The physical, hard-hitting 6-foot-1, 201-pound defenseman willed himself through all 23 playoff games for the Florida Everblades, the ECHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers. That stretched was capped late Saturday night when Everblades forward Matt Wedman scored 3:38 into overtime to give Florida its third consecutive Kelly Cup, the ECHL's championship.

A 4-3 win against Kansas City capped a 4-1 win in the best-of-7 Kelly Cup Finals. It's the third straight league title for Florida, the first for Zmolek, whose body is banged up, but banged up with a ring on his hand.

"Just the way I play, it's not the easiest to stay healthy," the 27-year-old left-shot defenseman said with a chuckle. "My mind is still young, but my body doesn't always feel that way.

"I do feel pretty good right now. In the postseason, we do more optional skates and more to take care of our bodies, more rest. You figure out what works for your body and do more of that."

Zmolek is a champ in just his third season of pro hockey. Equally remarkable is that, while he has a grand total of 49 points (13 goals, 36 assists) in 177 professional games, he has worn a letter on his jersey in all three of those professional seasons.

It started in 2021-22, when, as a rookie, he was named an alternate captain for the Iowa Heartlanders, the Minnesota Wild's ECHL affiliate. The following season, he was named the team's captain.

He was named an alternate captain upon his arrival in southwestern Florida this season, a decision he didn't see coming, considering he is a third-year player joining a team that had won back-to-back league championships.

"It's always an honor when you get that letter," he said. "I was surprised, caught off guard a little bit. I was still trying to learn the systems and all that when they gave out the letters. It's a huge honor.

"I've always tried to play the same way, from juniors on up, just try to lead by example, work hard out there. It means a lot to me that, in the eyes of my teammates I was doing just that, leading by example."

That Zmolek was in Florida this year at all, caught some in the league by surprise. He was a valuable piece to the Heartlanders roster, as a leader and a veteran presence, though he is still relatively new to pro hockey.

At some point during the 2022-23 season, though, Zmolek had started to think a change of scenery might be best for his career. At 26 years old, having played competitive hockey for nearly two decades, his home base had never been outside of Minnesota or Iowa, moving from Rochester to Austin (NAHL) to Cedar Rapids (USHL) to Des Moines (AHL) to Coralville (ECHL).

While that's not a bad thing, Zmolek was thinking that making a move to an unfamiliar location might give his competitive juices the stir he was looking for. Always one to put his head down, keep his mouth closed and do whatever is asked of him, Zmolek quietly sought a trade.

"It was all kind of new to me, that part of pro hockey, especially after just two years of being in the league," he said. "I talked to my agent, he and I were on the same page, and we just thought it would be best to see if we could make a move. It can be risky, you really don't know where you're going and you can't really control it.

"When I heard it was Florida, I was pumped. I knew they'd won back to back titles and I'd only heard good things. When I got down here, it was even better than I expected."

That might be an understatement.

Zmolek settled in to his new home in Estero, Fla., approximately 20 miles from Fort Myers, the home of the Minnesota Twins' spring training complex. Estero sits two hours south of Tampa and two hours west of Miami.

"It's an unbelievable place to live," he said. "If you have a bad day — or a good day — at the trink, you go outside, the sun is shining. You can go to the pool or the beach or the golf course. At the same time, it's still hockey season, and once we get to the last couple months of the season, it's a lot of resting the body and staying home. You have to find that balance of having fun, but (being a pro)."

Right now, June of 2024, there may not be a better place in the world to play hockey than in south Florida. The Everblades wrapped up the Kelly Cup on the same night the Florida Panthers — who play in the northern Miami suburb of Sunrise — won Game 1 of the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers, who have a Rochester native on their bench, assistant coach Mark Stuart.

"It helps when you win, and they've won back-to-back here," Zmolek said Thursday, the off-day before Game 4 of the Kelly Cup Finals, "but the minute I got here, I could see the fans are really involved. It was packed here for Game 3 (Wednesday) night. I'd never dreamed it would be as packed and as loud as it was.

"My parents (Doug and Jennifer) and sister (Ella) flew down this week, so for them to see that on their first time here, it's pretty cool. It's cool to see how much hockey has grown here."