Hockey remains Zombo’s constant

There are two Rick Zombos. Both of them draw illustrations. One of them used to also draw penalties.

Photo by Brett McMillan
Current Lindenwood mens’ hockey coach and former NHL defenseman Rick Zombo speaks to a group of student last week at Lindenwood University.

Lindenwood men’s ice hockey coach Rick Zombo considered pursuing a liberal arts degree so he could become an illustrator. Since the University of North Dakota offered him a full ride as a hockey defenseman he decided to use his free education for something more practical. He declared himself an economics major.

Zombo eventually left drawing to the Rick Zombo of Dark Horse Comics, and the finance to those who enjoyed it. He had found finance classes to be little fun.

After three years at North Dakota, Zombo also left the Fighting Sioux for an NHL system.

While at UND Zombo had won a national championship.  They beat the University of Wisconsin his freshman season, but he also earned what he said is a PhD in hockey.

The Detroit Red Wings allowed Zombo to use his PhD. They drafted him in the eighth round of 1981 NHL Entry Draft.

At that time, he was still deciding between playing junior hockey in Canada, or playing in the NCAA. He eventually chose UND.

When he left college in 1984, Detroit still held his rights and signed him. Zombo was sent to the Adirondack Red Wings, the highest level of Detroit’s farm system.

He said he was ready for the pace of the game at the professional level. It was quicker, and most important for Zombo, more aggressive. The hard-nosed style of play suited him well.

While he thrived on the ice, off the ice he had to learn some life lessons.

Zombo, a Chicago native, was used to snow. He discovered his signing bonus purchase was not. The $25,000 signing bonus the Red Wings gave Zombo was used to buy a Mustang GT.

“When you buy your first brand-new car you think that’s the be-all and the end-all,” Zombo said. “Unfortunately when you take a car that weighs nothing, and has a real low-low end, and you’re in the snow hills of the Adirondacks, it is not the right car for Glen Falls, N.Y.”

While Zombo’s years in college didn’t prepare him to drive on snowy hills, they did prepare him to produce points as a professional hockey player. During Zombo’s first season in Adirondack he had 35 points.

“I made an NHL career playing against opponents’ leading scoring lines,” Zombo said. “That’s why I was on the ice. That is how I made a career. I kind of learned that at the college level.”

The Red Wings gave Zombo his first taste of NHL action during the 1984-’85 season. He joined them on a road trip in St. Louis for his first NHL game.

“When you come off the ice in practice and you have not an Adirondack Red Wing hockey bag in front of your stall, it’s a Detroit Red Wings bag in your stall, that’s the be-all and the end-all. Just putting your equipment inside of that new bag is huge,” Zombo said. “That’s the last time you touch your bag, because the trainers do all the work at the National Hockey League, and it’s a really interesting thing. It is culture shock, but you realize that you have earned that opportunity, and you want to appreciate it.”

Zombo split time between Adirondack and Detroit for the next few seasons. He became a full time NHL player when he made the Red Wings’ roster out of training camp at the beginning of the 1987-’88 season.

He had 17 points and a plus 24 rating his rookie season. The Red Wings won the Norris Division, and advanced to the Campbell Conference final where they were eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers.

That season was the first of consecutive seasons during which Zombo’s Red Wings played the Oilers and Wayne Gretzky in the conference final. Detroit lost both series and the Oilers went on to win the Stanley Cup twice in a row.

“My teams that I played on were no different than everybody else in the National Hockey League. Number 99 was written on the board. You hit him, you get him out of the game, you wear him down,” Zombo said. “To have fans say, ‘Is there an untouchable rule? Why does nobody hit him?’ He was that good. You couldn’t catch him. Being on the ice and having the responsibility of shutting down the best player in the National Hockey League, and also concerning yourself with his teammates was a wonderful challenge.”

The Red Wings made the playoffs two out of the next three seasons, but lost during the first round both times.

Three games into the 1990-’91 season Zombo was traded to the St. Louis Blues for St. Louis’ No. 1 goaltender Vincent Riendeau.

The Blues had lost defenseman Scott Stevens to the New Jersey Devils and needed a player to solidify their defense.

In Detroit, a new general manager was in the process of giving the Red Wings a facelift by bringing in young Europeans stars like Nicklas Lidstrom. To make roster space for young players Detroit started moving established players like Zombo.

Zombo never had more than 18 points during any of his four seasons with St. Louis, but then Blues assistant coach Ted Sator said Zombo was one of the team’s best assets.

“For me, he is the kind of player that coaches really, really, really like. Because you knew that every time he was on the ice, he was an intelligent player, and a very hard working player and a student of the game,” Sator said. “And you could trust [him]. And that is the biggest thing for a coach in any sport, is can you trust your athlete? You could always trust Rick when he was on the ice.”

Some in St. Louis remember Zombo not only for his reliability, but for slashing official Kevin Collins during a 1994 playoff game in Dallas. Collins had accidentally impeded Zombo from playing a puck, which eventually led to Dallas scoring the game winning goal. Following the initial interference, Zombo circled around the zone and hit Collins behind the knee.

The situation was a rare time when the NHL league offices disciplined Zombo. No penalty minutes were assigned to him during the game, but afterward the league suspended him ten games and fined him $40,000.

The Blues traded Zombo to the Boston Bruins in Oct. 1995. He played a season there before being released and signed by the Los Angeles Kings.

Los Angeles sent him to its minor league team in Phoenix, Ariz. Zombo played the majority of the 1996-’97 season for the Phoenix Roadrunners. He then retired from the NHL in 1997.

Since retiring Zombo has been involved in several business ventures. Some of his enterprises have involved hockey and some haven’t. He has hosted a sports talk radio show in the St. Louis area, sold outdoor supplies and helped to build an ice rink in suburban St. Louis.

After a while, it became clear to Zombo he needed to do what he was best at.

“When I retired from hockey I recognized that your marketability doesn’t gradually dissipate. It drops like a rock,” Zombo said. “So these people that I had, that I thought were pretty good acquaintances in the business world, went up in a puff of smoke over night. Coaching was where I was going to go.”

Zombo has coached pee-wee, high school and junior hockey since retiring. He also has served at the general manager and head coach for the defunct St. Louis Heartland Eagles.

In 2008, he joined the Lindenwood University mens’ hockey coaching staff. As an assistant, Zombo won consecutive American Collegiate Hockey Association Div. I titles.

LU hired Zombo to be the head coach in July 2010. During Zombo’s first two seasons as head coach Lindenwood has lost in the national final and semi-final games. Last year the Lions became the first team in the history of their conference to go undefeated during conference play.

“He knows so much about the game,” Lindenwood sophomore defenseman Nick Carey said. “It’s great just to pick his mind, and just talk to him, and just listen to what he has to say, because you are learning every time.”

Twenty-eight years after choosing hockey instead of drawing and economics Zombo is now using all three. He is drawing up the plans and crunching the numbers regarding a future move for his program to the NCAA Div. I level.

In 2014, the Lions would be eligible, and prepared for the move, if Lindenwood administrators and the NCAA give LU hockey permission to proceed.

“We’re the top dog of the ACHA,” Zombo said. “Everybody is jealous of Lindenwood hockey, because we have a history. It is not a tradition, we have a history, of success in winning. And everyone aspires to be like Lindenwood University.”


About brettmcmillan

Believer. Broadcaster. Story Teller.

Posted on October 26, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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