There was a time not so long ago when South Carolina Stingrays goalie Ryan Zapolski wondered if professional hockey was in his future.
Stingrays WeekendFriday: Reading Royals, 7:05 p.m.Saturday: Gwinnett, 7:05 p.m.Where: North Charleston ColiseumTickets: 744-2248
On paper and on the ice, the former Mercyhurst College star had proven he belonged in the ECHL.
Before joining the Stingrays at the beginning of November, Zapolski had played for four different teams over the last two seasons — Florida, Toledo, Kalamazoo and Gwinnett — and had yet to find a permanent home.
He’s hoping that will change with the Stingrays.
The Stingrays take on the Reading Royals tonight beginning at 7:05 p.m. at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Despite putting up some impressive numbers — Zapolski was 10-4-1 in the ECHL with a 2.37 goals against average and a .917 save percentage before joining the Stingrays — he couldn’t seem to stick on any roster. He bounced around from team to team last year and with the NHL lockout, his chances of earning a permanent spot in the ECHL looked dim.
Zapolski had not been drafted by an NHL team and wasn’t under contract with a team from the American Hockey League. Since most ECHL teams have at least one or usually two affiliated goalies, jobs are becoming harder and harder to come by for free agent goalies.
“It was really frustrating because I felt like I had played well enough to earn a spot,” Zapolski said. “I understood that since I wasn’t an affiliated goalie it was going to be tough. It’s a numbers games in this league when you’re a free agent, but there were times when I felt like I had really earned the right stay.”
Zapolski started last season with the Stockton Thunder. When things didn’t work out there, he was traded to Kalamazoo, but played just one game. He was back home in Erie, Penn., when Toledo called. He stayed with the Walleye for three months, but spent most of the time on the injured list with torn knee cartilage. Finally, Gwinnett traded for Zapolski and he played 12 games for the Gladiators, including a couple of starts against the Stingrays.
“I actually think last year helped me a lot because I got to see all the different teams and all the different styles,” Zapolski said. “I think it helped prepare me for anything I was going to see this year.”
Zapolski started this season in Idaho’s training camp, but when an AHL affiliated goalie was sent down, Zapolski packed his bags.
“That’s the first time I wondered if it was going to happen for me this season,” Zapolski said. “I almost felt like it wasn’t meant to be.”
But it was meant to be. He got a call from Gwinnett and recorded two wins, including one against the Stingrays.
When Stingrays rookie Adam Morrison was injured, coach Spencer Carbery signed Zapolski. Zapolski is 3-4-0 with a .941 save percentage and a 1.63 goals against average. He quickly earned the respect of his new teammates and coaching staff.
“You’ve got to give Ryan a lot of credit for his perseverance,” Carbery said. “In just about any other occupation, you perform well and you keep your job. Well, Ryan was performing at a high level, but couldn’t keep his spot on a roster.
“I’m not sure I would have stuck it out, but I’m glad he did. He’s hasn’t had a bad game for us yet.”