July 30, 2013

From NEHJ: Zaniboni forges winning identity

By Bill Keefe

While Bill Zaniboni worked for everything he had as a player, he always gave everything he could to others.

After minding the nets for three Super 8 champions at Catholic Memorial, the Plymouth, Mass., native played for four junior teams in three years in the United States Hockey League and the North American Hockey League to earn his Division 1 scholarship. Throughout his collegiate and pro career, Zaniboni was recognized for his community service, most notably, the mentorship and friendship he developed in college with a young boy whose father was seriously ill. He is still regularly in touch with the now-Bantam goalie and his family.

It’s a great makeup for a coach. And, when he was a two-year starter for Northern Michigan and then winning a championship and goaltender of the year honors in the Southern Professional Hockey League, Zaniboni knew he’d get into coaching.

Zaniboni is entering his fourth year of coaching junior hockey, his second in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League with the Dells Ducks, based in Wisconsin Dells, Wisc., about 45 minutes northwest of Madison. In his first season with the Ducks, who were in their second year of existence, he took them within an overtime game of making the USA Hockey Tier 3 National Junior Championships, losing to the team that eventually became the national runner-up. In the 50-game regular season, the team improved from 20 to 29 wins, from 44 to 60 points and from fifth to third place in its division.

Winning is nice, no doubt, but it’s not the primary goal for Zaniboni or the Ducks.

“I hate losing at checkers,” said Zaniboni, 31. “But at the end of the day, you sit down and realize the bigger picture is to help kids reach their goals, whatever goals they want to reach.”

As proof, every player from last year’s team looking for a college placement found one. Players moved up to the NAHL. Some are trying out for NA teams now. Some players who moved up came back down. But while they were up, they were telling people about the Ducks, and interest built. Rather than move on, some players want to return next year.

“It’s not necessarily what we wanted,” said owner John Schwarz, explaining the team’s mission is development and promotion. “I am so blessed to have Bill Zaniboni. Fifteen months ago, I didn’t know about him.”

Schwarz owns Ultimate Hockey Tournaments, which are run in the Dells and St. Louis. He started the junior team in 2011-12 and was out recruiting after the first season when he met Zaniboni.

“Watching him interact with players, it was so professional,” Schwarz said. “He told them the truth. He doesn’t sugar coat anything. If his team isn’t a fit, he’ll also say other teams you might work well with. He’s such a giving person and willing to help anybody. Kids gravitate to him. He’s so unselfish.

“He’s got the contacts and people out there trust him. … Our healthy scratches are playing Division 3. He’s perfect with the kids. He’s got the charisma. He knows what he’s doing. Kids want to come back and play with him.”

When Zaniboni met Schwarz, he was coaching in Bozeman, Mont., in the America West Hockey League. Moving closer to his wife Kim’s family and believing that Schwarz was in it for the right reasons were two factors in Zaniboni jumping to Wisconsin.

“The team was still really new and didn’t have an identity yet,” Zaniboni said. “That’s what intrigued me — to create an identity for the team and for myself as a coach.”

Zaniboni worked to establish the Ducks as a physical, high-energy team. To build a foundation for that and create buy-in, “the biggest thing is to make it a family as quick as you can if you’re going to be successful,” he said.

Players arrive in August for training camp followed by what Zaniboni termed the best bonding experience, the college tour. Over a week, the team bused around Lake Michigan visiting colleges, taking a campus tour, talking to coaches and players, and either playing a game, watching one or practicing. The Ducks visited Northern Michigan, Robert Morris, St. Mary’s in Minnesota, Lewis University in Illinois, Ferris State and Lake Superior State. Players and coaches Zaniboni had played or coached with or against would offer insight and motivation to the team on what it takes to play in college and what the experience is like. At Northern Michigan, the Ducks played the club team; at St. Mary’s it was the JV. At Ferris State, the Ducks watched a game against Michigan State.

“It was great for our guys to get out and see what schools offer and what they’re looking for,” Zaniboni said. “We’d ask guys to give us a list of 10 schools they were interested in and there would be no reasoning behind it, whether they wanted a big school, a small school, what kind of degree they were interested in. They understood more what was out there.”

Center Colin Cross (Simsbury, Conn.) was the lone New Englander on the Ducks last year. After graduating from Westminster in the spring of 2012, he attended a showcase in Indiana where he met Zaniboni, who was still with Bozeman at the time and offered Cross a spot on the team, which he accepted. When Zaniboni called to say he was moving to the Ducks and wanted Cross to come with him, Cross said it was an easy decision because he had liked Zaniboni from the start and he could see how invested he was in what he was doing.

“It’s a cliché to call it a family, but it really is a family atmosphere,” Cross said. “We bonded quickly and stuck together until the end. It was a good group of hockey players, a good group of guys, and it was a great experience.”

Cross recently made the all-star game at two NAHL camps, has been invited to one main camp and is waiting to hear on the other. While he would like to move up a level, in the event he didn’t make one of the teams, “going back there is not a bad thing.”

Community service is part of the Ducks experience. Players are on the ice at every practice of the local youth hockey organization. They raised money for a food pantry, volunteered on a holiday train ride and lent their brawn in setting up for various events.

From his family, his days at Catholic Memorial playing for Bill Hanson and his minor league experiences, Zaniboni has learned the value of giving back, and wants to pass it on to his players. He and his wife also want to pass it on to their 20-month-old son, Vanek.

The Ducks actually finished the regular season on a tough stretch, but the closeness of the team clicked in the playoffs as players sacrificed for each other and didn’t want the season to end.

They won their first series then swept Rochester, which had beaten them six times during the season and had reached nationals nine straight years. They took Northern Lights, eventual national runner-up, to OT in the third game, losing 1-0.

“We literally had guys blocking shots with their face and coming off with no teeth,” Zaniboni said. “Our guys did unreal. Colleges were there and pretty much committed kids right after the games. The hockey was really good.”

Not that he’s looking to leave the Ducks, but like his players, Zaniboni said he would like to coach in college some day. “You get somebody this good, you don’t know how long he’ll be here,” said Schwarz, the owner. “No matter where he goes, I’ll always have a relationship with him and his family. Bill exceeded all expectations within the community and with me.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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