March 29, 2012

From NEHJ: Not lost in translation

By Mike Zhe

When Phil Zielonka’s parents emigrated from Poland in 1987, and his father took a second job delivering pizzas to help support his growing family, the idea of setting aside that money for the latest hockey equipment and best camps was … well, Å›mieszny. 

Senior Phil Zielonka, who leads top-ranked Salisbury in scoring, plans to continue his career at Harvard. (Photo by Joseph Meehan)

In English, ridiculous.

A quarter-century later, the Salisbury School winger has put any obstacles to his development in his rearview mirror, like defenders who were a stride slow.

Zielonka, a senior, has pumped in a team-high 25 goals for a Salisbury team that sat atop the New England Hockey Journal prep school power rankings in late February. He’s been accepted to Harvard, where he plans to continue his hockey career after a year of juniors.

A future that’s burning bright, both on and off the ice? That’s not so Å›mieszny.

“He’s a real special kid to come from a family like that and end up at Harvard,” said Salisbury defenseman and team captain Marc Biega. “It’s a great story.”

The Crimson Knights (22-3-0) have been a pretty good story themselves this winter. A 1-0 win late last month against Avon Old Farms clinched a Founders League title and they’ll be one of the eight teams in the Stuart/Corkery tournament, chasing their first New England championship since 2008-09.

There’s no shortage of reasons for the success. Biega, the fourth in a line of brothers to play at Salisbury, leads a strong defense that includes senior Nate Bubacy, and juniors Thomas Welsh, Willie Brooks, Mark Hamilton (Winthrop, Mass.) and Ryan Segalla (Rockland, Mass.), in front of solid goaltenders Justin Nichols and Tim Ernst.

Up front, Zielonka’s getting help from seniors such as John Stevens, the son of the Los Angeles Kings assistant coach, who has received six scholarship offers from Division 1 teams; and Zack Pryzbek, both of whom are on Central Scouting’s midterm draft watch list. Since a 2-1 loss to Choate on Jan., 16, the Knights have won 12 straight.

“Defensively, I think we’re the best team,” Zielonka said. “We think we have the best defensive corps in the league.”

The offense hasn’t been too shabby either, and Zielonka’s a big reason for that. A shoot-first player and left-handed shot who plays on the right wing, he began hitting his stride last year around midseason and finished with 20 goals.

“A lot of kids new to prep hockey do have trouble making the transition,” Salisbury coach Andrew Will said. “But from New Year’s on last year, he’s been on a torrid pace. He’s someone who’s a threat whenever the puck’s on his stick.”

Growing up outside of Montreal in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Zielonka was exposed to hockey at an early age, something that probably wouldn’t have happened had the family not emigrated.

Older brothers Martin, 30, and David, 28, were born in Poland, and both began playing hockey when they moved to Canada, though at the relatively advanced age of 10.

“When my family came over here, my parents and my brothers fell in love with the sport,” Phil said. “They never got a chance to play there.”

Phil was shooting pucks as a toddler and on skates by the age of 4. As he got older, and the family’s financial situation improved, there was money for equipment and camps, and a never-ending stream of car rides to games and tournaments.

“My parents didn’t know anything about prep schools or major junior, but they knew I had some kind of talent,” he said.

“One-hundred percent I do (credit them for my development). My parents worked so hard. That’s why education is so important to my family. They spent their whole life working or traveling with me for hockey. If one day I could pay them back, that would be great.”

It was in Bantams and Midgets that Zielonka first shared a locker room with Biega, who today is his roommate and one of his best friends. Biega’s older brothers, Michael, Alex and Danny, all passed through Salisbury on their way to Harvard, so Zielonka got to see firsthand the benefits of the prep route.

“The No. 1 influence and No. 1 reason I’m here is the Biegas,” Zielonka said. “His dad took us around one weekend to the clubs and the schools, and for me the best fit was Salisbury.”

In some ways, Zielonka is like lots of students at Salisbury, trying to balance the rigors of athletics and academics, while trying to determine the best path for his future.

But in other ways he’s different

“He’s working on his fourth language,” Will said.

Zielonka’s first language was Polish. To this day, it’s what he speaks when he’s home with his family. Growing up outside Montreal, he attended French schools and quickly became fluent in that.

“I’d have some friends when I was very, very young, and I’d speak Polish and they’d speak French and we wouldn’t understand each other,” he said. “But at that age you don’t need to.”

But it was hockey that had the biggest impact on his English. That’s the language his teammates spoke at and away from the rink, and soon it was absorbed.

His courseload at Salisbury includes Spanish.

“It’s going well,” he said. “It’s pretty similar to French. I’d like to be fluent in that and one or two more down the road.”

Down the road is looking pretty good these days. There’s the chance for a New England title at Salisbury, then Harvard in 2013, where Zielonka’s thinking he might like to study economics.

“It’s been good,” he said. “Since I was young the priority for my family was education, and that’s been the goal, to get the best education I can.”

There’s been no problems with that translation.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com