STOCKHOLM – Rob Zamuner flew into town a few days ago as part of the NHLPA contingent which more or less hammered out a framework for participation of the NHL in Sochi next February. It provided occasion for him to reflect on a life in hockey that has been both successful and varied.
Drafted 45th overall by the Rangers in 1987, Zamuner continued to play in the OHL with Guelph until 1989. He was never a top prospect and got to the NHL through determination and hard work. He started in the IHL, moved up to the AHL, and made his NHL debut in 1992. That summer, he signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent and developed into a fine two-way player, capable offensively but also highly respected for his defensive play.
Zamuner stayed with the Lightning for seven years, and it was during this period that he had his international success as well, starting with Canada’s World Championship team which won gold in 1997.
“It was in Helsinki,” he started, before adding with a chuckle, “and it’s a nauseating cliché, but playing for your country in a great honour. At the beginning of the tournament, the Swedes pounded us; it was an eye-opener. You kind of have the attitude that you play in the NHL and that’s the be all and end all. The guys came together and we ended up winning the tournament, but it’s a very difficult tournament. Until you play in it, you don’t realize the skill level of the teams and the players. With no disrespect, you don’t know the names on their jerseys, but you quickly find out there are a lot of really good players from around the globe.”
His reputation as a two-way player, and his success at the Worlds, was enough for general manager Bob Clarke to name Zamuner to Canada’s Olympic team for Nagano 1998. It was a decision that sparked much dialogue because clearly Zamuner wasn’t one of the nation’s best players in terms of offence or skill, but within the role Clarke had in mind for him, there were few better options.
Zamuner scored one goal in Nagano, a beautiful re-direction of a sensational Wayne Gretzky pass in the team’s 4-1 win over the United States.
“Anybody could have scored that goal! I had taken a penalty the shift before, and I was watching from the box as Patrick Roy made I don’t know how many saves. I came out of the box and went to the net, and I think Sakic took the puck up and gave it to Gretzky. It was a ridiculously easy goal, but I’ll take it. It was quite a memory.”
Zamuner is too humble. While everyone on ice, in the building, and at home watching were expecting Gretzky to fire a shot on goal, Zamuner had the presence of mind to keep his stick on the ice and expect the unexpected.
“Everyone was looking at him,” Zamuner recalled. “I was just hoping he could see me. People talk about him having eyes in the back of his head. That was another example. The game against the Americans was quite an emotional one because they had beaten us in the World Cup in 1996, so the game in Nagano was quite intense. Unfortunately, we didn’t finish the deal. We came up against a really hot goaltender in Hasek.”
Later that year, Zamuner played in the 1998 World Championship as well. At the start of the next season he was named Tampa Bay captain, but he was soon traded to Ottawa and then moved on to Boston. His NHL career pretty much ended with the lockout, but he still had two years of hockey left in Europe, starting in Switzerland.
“A lot of players were talking about whether to stay at home or play somewhere else,” he explained. “I was at a point in my career when I was older and I needed to play. Luckily enough, Basel thought I could help. I had two kids, aged five and four, and my wife was four months pregnant. She was a trooper. I asked her if she wanted to go, and she was all for it. Our daughter was born in Switzerland, and it was a wonderful experience. We were in the B level, and we played Lausanne in the playoffs and won. I didn’t understand the enormity or the difficulty of going from B to A. And I hear Lausanne only made it to the A this year. That’s a long time.”
From there he played in Italy. “My dad was born and raised in Italy,” he started. “He always wanted me to go there and play. He’s from the north, so I chose Bolzano because I thought it would be cool to play in my father’s home country. He came over and was really proud. He was more excited for me playing in Italy than my 13 years in the NHL.”
After a brief time there, he moved to, of all places, Australia, and that is where he played his final professional games.
“I knew some friends who had played there,” he explained. “A guy called me. He was persistent, and I thought this was an opportunity to grow the game in an untraditional place. I did some youth camps there. I ended up being a part-time coach and played at the same time. We lived south of Brisbane in a place called Burleigh Head, which was big on surfing. It was a tremendous experience. I tried surfing, but I wasn’t very good. I always try to do what the locals do whenever we travel.”
Once retired, in 2006, Zamuner then kept his feet in hockey and landed a job with the NHLPA thanks to his hockey connections.
“After retiring, I did a couple of things. I was an assistant coach for the Mississauga Ice Dogs. I did some radio and TV. And then Eric Lindros called me. He was working at the Players’ Association and asked if I’d be interested in doing some work there, and I thought why not. It allowed me to stay in the game and also learn the business of the game.”
Learn it he did, the hard way. The 2012-13 season was cut in half as the league and players tried to hammer out an agreement. “This negotiation was exhausting but very rewarding,” Zamuner explained. “I went through them as a player, but it was much different as a staff member. We have several former players at the PA, and I think it’s very helpful in explaining to our lawyers and various people what the players are going through.”
And just a few days ago, all parties agreed to move forward in the understanding that the NHL will shut down and sent its players to Sochi. Good news all around.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that players love to play for their country, but it’s obviously an issue that has to be agreed upon among all parties. Don Fehr made it clear what the players would like, so all sides are working towards getting the players there. It’s the best for the game, obviously. I’m biased, because I played at the Olympics. It’s the greatest experience in the world.”