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Wednesday January 3, 2018

MEMORABLY NAMED DEFENCEMAN PLAYED THE OLYMPICS AT 19

He spent 13 seasons in the NHL, including a five-season stint with the Calgary Flames, then another decade playing for teams across Europe

Special to The Globe and Mail

Even a casual hockey fan knew the name Zarley Zalapski, a unique moniker for a roving defenceman with a wicked shot.

Mr. Zalapski, who died at the age of 49 from complications following a viral infection, debuted on the hockey stage as a teenager with the Canadian national team, which he joined at the age of 17. Two years later, he displayed preternatural maturity as a defenceman for Canada before a partisan crowd at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

A smooth skater who remained calm in handling the puck even when deep in enemy territory, Mr. Zalapski seemed destined for stardom when the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him in the first round, fourth over all, of the 1986 entry draft. He went on to enjoy a 13-season career in the National Hockey League, including 178 games over five seasons with the Calgary Flames.

While always an offensive threat as a rushing defenceman, his great promise never found fruition in an NHL career that saw him skate for five teams. He also had the misfortune of being on the wrong end of perhaps the worst trade in the history of the Hartford Whalers. Even as he racked up career highs in goals and assists, Whalers fans expressed disappointment at his performance at every opportunity.

Mr. Zalapski had a reputation as a hard worker who was a popular figure in the dressing room, where he was commonly referred to by his initials alone. "ZZ was a great teammate," former Flame Theo Fleury posted on Twitter.

The defenceman had a second act that mostly went unnoticed by the hockey world. He played professional hockey in Europe for a decade after leaving the NHL, not retiring from the game until the age of 42.

Zarley Bennett Zalapski was born on April 22, 1968, in Edmonton and raised in the suburb of Leduc. He was skating for the Fort Saskatchewan Traders, a junior team in northern Alberta, when he was recruited to the national program.

He attracted notice for his daring yet intelligent play at the annual Izvestia tournament in Moscow in 1987, when he was named the tournament's top defenceman as an underdog Canadian squad of castoffs and kids upset the favoured Soviet hosts.

Three months later, the Soviets had their revenge at the Calgary Olympics by winning gold as Canada finished fourth and off the podium. Mr. Zalapski scored a goal and added three assists in eight games at the Olympics. He then joined the Penguins for 15 games, scoring three goals with eight assists.

The coaching staff hoped the 6-foot-1, 215pound athlete might become a Paul Coffey-type player, setting the tempo of a game through his speed, quickly shifting from defending to attacking.

On March 4, 1991, Mr. Zalapski was a key figure in a blockbuster, six-player trade with the Whalers.

The Penguins traded Mr. Zalapski, John Cullen and Jeff Parker to Hartford for Ron Francis, Grant Jennings and Ulf Samuelsson, who helped Pittsburgh win the Stanley Cup two months later. The Penguins successfully defended their title the following year. Meanwhile, Hartford fans did not hide their discontent with their new defenceman, who seemed an unworthy successor to the players lost in the trade.

Despite the enmity, Mr. Zalapski enjoyed his most productive offensive season in 1991-92, scoring 20 goals with 37 assists for the Whalers. He was traded to the Flames in another major, sixplayer deal on March 10, 1994.

After just his second game of the 1996-97 season, he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in practice and needed reconstructive surgery on his right knee, losing a season of play. By the time he returned, he no longer fit into the Flames' plans. His defensive play, never a strong suit, became ever more a liability as he lost speed following his injury. The Flames often had him sit out games even when he was healthy. The defenceman demanded a trade and was sent to the Montreal Canadiens, where he was reunited with Dave King, an assistant coach in Montreal who had coached him on the national team and the Flames.

Mr. Zalapski's time with the Canadiens was short and unhappy. He later had a brief stint with the Philadelphia Flyers, his final stop in the NHL.

Working hard to stay in shape, Mr. Zalapski played in minor professional leagues with the Houston Aeros, Utah Grizzlies and Long Beach Ice Dogs in an unsuccessful attempt to revive his career. He scored 99 goals with 285 assists in 637 NHL games.

He had four goals and 23 assists in 48 playoff games.

A European odyssey, during which he married a Swiss national, had the defenceman skating for teams in Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland. He hung up his skates after playing for Lausanne in the second tier of the Swiss National League.

In recent years, Mr. Zalapski was a familiar figure in Calgary, where he was active with the Flames alumni group and coached minor hockey.

Mr. Zalapski died in Calgary on Dec. 12. A viral infection led to hospitalization in the fall. He leaves his wife, Klaudija; sons Zen, 17, and Kai, 12; parents Bonnie and Leonard Zalapski; and, a sister, Kyla Zalapski.

He gained his euphonious moniker from his father, a fan of the American professional golfer Kermit Zarley, whose own odd name attracted attention from comedians in the late 1960s. It was Bob Hope who described Mr. Zarley as "the pro from the moon." It is fair to say a hockey player named Kermit Zalapski would have been less memorable.

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Associated Graphic

Hockey player Zarley Zalapski plays with the Calgary Flames during a 1995 game against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the latter's hometown in California.

GLENN CRATTY/GETTY IMAGES

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