Raising players: Speak softly, build a rink

Doug Zmolek could have been a classic hockey dad to his son Riese, now a senior defenseman for Minnesota State Mankato’s men’s hockey. After all, Doug had been a University of Minnesota Gopher in college and later, in the NHL, played for the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings.

But as Riese recalls it, his path to hockey—a path that has him playing in the NCAA Frozen Four tournament—was his own.

Senior Riese Zmolek

“He lets me be my own player,” Riese said of his dad. “For the most part, both my parents have done a good job teaching me different values, not only for hockey but for life.” Over the years, Doug would occasionally offer some advice “if he saw me doing something really not benefitting me or my game.” Beyond that, his dad was a resource happy to be called upon. 

“For the most part, it’s when I ask him a question,” Riese said. “When I’m not playing my best I’ll ask what he sees. He’s there to help me get through that and try to keep going.”

Riese recalls his love for hockey starting at age 4 or 5 when attending his dad’s games in Chicago.

“I can remember little bits and pieces,” Riese said. “He’d bring me out to the ice sometime. I remember they had a pretty cool little gift shop in Chicago in the rink. I’d always get little hockey guys to play with back home. That’s all I really remember because I was pretty young.”

He also remembers a hockey rink being built a few years later in the backyard of the family’s Rochester, Minn. home. And that, perhaps above all, is what Doug Zmolek said was the key to his three boys becoming hockey players.

A 1992-93 hockey card for Doug Zmolek, father to Maverick men’s hockey player Riese Zmolek.

“My uncle is a concrete guy in Iowa,” Doug said at his Rochester home. “I asked him to come up  and we put a cement slab down, 60 by 80, and my dad and I built two-feet-high boards.

“That was the best thing we ever did because those kids got to play,” Zmolek said of his sons Riese, Bennet, William and daughter Ella. “I think that’s where they really, really started to love the game, those outdoor games. They’d play for hours.”

Today, William plays for Bemidji State University and Bennet plays in Youngstown for the USHL. Ella’s a freshman in high school, active in volleyball and basketball.

“We miss those Sundays so bad,” Doug said. “Most of the time we’d have an early game, and the boys would play five or six hours in to the night on Sunday. Those are the days we miss the most.”

As for offering Riese advice on hockey, Doug said coaching youth hockey was as intense as it got.

“If he needed to reach out to me he knew he could do that. To be honest, he reached out to his mother more than me just about different things, more life things and other stuff. It was good.”

A longtime Maverick fan who was friends with former hockey coach Eric Means, Doug marveled at the Mavericks performance against Quinnipiac on March 27, the day before they upset the Minnesota Golden Gophers and entered the NCAA Frozen Four tournament.

“Man, I haven’t seen them play a game from start to finish like that in the four years he’s played in Mankato,” Doug said. “It was just a complete team effort and they all bought in and man, did they look good.”

Riese, graduating in sport management in the spring, hopes to play professional hockey in the years ahead. For now, with the Mavericks two wins away from a Frozen Four championship, his mind is on the present.

“I’m trying to stay occupied, trying to calm the nerves a bit,” he said. “It was a big weekend for us, we made some school history. But we’re getting ready for the next game, trying not to be satisfied with the first two, and hopefully have two more games ahead of us.”