Upon being named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic hockey team, goalie Ryan Zapolski took to Twitter and perfectly summed up what it meant for a hockey player in his position to be looking ahead to his first Olympic Winter Games.
Ryan Zapolski started playing hockey when he was eight years old in Erie, Pennsylvania in the mid-90s when some childhood friends sparked his interest. This was roughly 17 years before Connor McDavid came to town to excite fans as a member of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters.
Zapolski started on the ice as a forward, but soon realized he wasn’t making the same travel teams as his friends. When a coach asked him to play goalie on one such team he jumped at the chance to play on the road, and hasn’t left the crease since.
After graduating high school in 2004, Zapolski spent two seasons in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) – one of the top junior leagues in the U.S. – playing for the Mahoning Valley Phantoms in Youngstown, Ohio. In his second season he led the league in save percentage (.929).
Zapolski returned to his hometown in 2007, and enrolled at Mercyhurst College. Zapolski had his best season with the Lakers as a sophomore when he posted a 2.22 goals-against average and a save percentage of .934.
After graduating with a degree in biology from Mercyhurst, Zapolski continued playing hockey by joining the ECHL. In his debut, Zapolski played in just one playoff game with the Florida Everblades in 2011, making 37 saves but allowing four goals in a loss.
For the next two seasons Zapolski bounced between sixth ECHL teams, but a 38-game stint with the South Carolina Stingrays during the 2012-13 season led to his being named the year’s MVP. Zapolski won 32 games with a 1.64 goals-against average, .942 save percentage and eight shutouts.
Zapolski’s breakout ECHL season was also considered his rookie season, since he had played in fewer than 25 games during his short tenure in the league. That same season he was also named Rookie of the Year, Goaltender of the Year as well as a First Team All-Star. He was just the second player to win all three, plus MVP in a single ECHL season.
That December, Zapolski’s play caught the attention of the Pittsburgh Penguin AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He joined the team, but saw no action. That same season he signed a professional tryout agreement with another AHL team, the Milwaukee Admirals. Again, he never saw time in the crease.
“I definitely never thought I’d be an Olympian. It’s a dream as a kid, for sure. I didn’t make the NHL, so it’s something you don’t think about so much as an American.”
Determined to play hockey at the highest level he could reach, Zapolski traveled overseas for a tryout with the Finnish Liiga pro team Lukko, in Rauma, Finland. Lukko liked what they saw and signed Zapolski.
In three seasons he played in 163 games recording a 2.06 goals-allowed average and a .923 save percentage.
For the 2016-17 season, Zapolski made the jump to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League while staying in Finland for the Helsinki-based Jokerit hockey club.
With his name on the list of 2018 U.S. Olympic prospects, Zapolski led Jokerit on a 15-game win streak. Over his first 30 games of the 2017-18 season, Zapolski is goaltending with numbers similar to his MVP season in the ECHL, owning the fourth-best goals-allowed average in the KHL at 1.36.
Playing for Team USA
At the 2013 Deutschland Cup, Zapolski was the winning goalie in the final for the U.S. Select Team, making 23 saves in a 7-4 win against Germany. He returned to play for the U.S. at the same tournament in 2015, where Team USA finished second to the host country.
In 2017, Zapolski was in Germany once more playing in a Deutschland Cup, this time under 2018 U.S. Olympic head coach Tony Granato. The U.S. struggled to score in Germany, losing all three of its games, despite outshooting their opponents. Zapolski got the final start against Germany and made 14 saves but allowed five goals in the loss.
Outside the rink
Zapolski married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth, in Erie, Pennsylvania in 2015.