Jo Zolnierczyk admits it was hard to see her teenage son, current Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward Harry Zolnierczyk, leave home in Toronto and travel across Canada to a small town outside of Vancouver to pursue his junior hockey career in 2005.
But it was harder for Jo to tell her son he had to leave home a second time.
Zolnierczyk’s father, Rick, had been ill and passed away during his first season of junior hockey with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs. Harry returned home to be with his mother and sister, Sally, but after a week went by, Jo knew it was time to bid her son farewell again.
“He was worried about leaving me here, but I made him go back,” she said. “We all had to press on and Harry needed to get back to his passion. He needed to get back to hockey.”
For Jo, being the mother of a hockey player is something she describes as “excruciating and exciting.” But in her son’s case, she knew that she had to put her own feelings aside and be supportive during the tough times that come with trying to build a hockey career.
Early on, there would be many tough times.
As a child growing up in Toronto, Harry was cut by his pee wee hockey team because he was too small. Later, he wasn’t drafted by a junior team out of high school. Even when he was accepted by three universities, a coach at one told him that he probably wouldn’t make the team.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue on with hockey,” Harry said. “Do you pass up on three really great universities and pursue a hockey career that doesn’t seem to be going that well at that point? There were a lot of tough decisions to make at that point in my life.”
Ready to give up on hockey, Harry was faced with a choice. He could let the hockey dreams die and pursue a degree at the University of Western Ontario, or he could travel to Vancouver, where he was offered a tryout by Alberni Valley in the British Columbia Hockey League.
Torn by the difficult choice, Jo stepped in to help her son.
“I asked him what would he be thinking about if he was at the university, and he said he’d be checking stats from the hockey games,” she said. “Then I asked him to put himself with the junior team and what would he be thinking about the university. He said he could do college later.”
So at the age of 17, and with his mother’s support, Harry traveled more than 2,800 miles across Canada to pursue his hockey dreams in Port Alberni, B.C.
Jo went with her son to Port Alberni for a tryout with the Bulldogs. He made the team and got that first season of junior hockey underway when he received the devastating news that his father had passed away.
Now, after having made the difficult decision to forego college for hockey, Harry had to decide whether to stay home with his mother or resume his career with Alberni Valley.
“Even before my dad passed away, I took on the role of being the man of the house at a young age,” Harry said. “I felt like I needed to stay, but my mom told me I should go back. She was looking out for my best interest and she pushed me in the right direction.”
After that, Harry and his mother began to experience a few positives with his hockey career. He wrapped up two seasons with the Bulldogs — scoring 20 goals in his final year, before continuing his career playing at the college level with Brown University. Harry produced just one goal in his first two seasons, but entering his junior year, a new coach took over the Brown program and taught him the offensive game.
“That sparked him,” Jo said.
Zolnierczyk’s final two seasons at Brown resulted in 29 goals and 64 points, good enough to earn him a entry level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers.
The next season Harry got his first NHL call up with the Flyers, who were scheduled to play in Ottawa the next day. That’s when Jo got a phone call she’ll never forget.
“Harry called me after practice that afternoon and said he was going to play that night,” she said. “Ottawa is five hours from where I work, so shut everything down, got in the car and arrived just before the game started.”
The Flyers routed the Senators that night, and with the score 6-1 late in the third period most of the Ottawa fans had already left. With 45 seconds left, Harry scored his first NHL goal and his mother, who had been with him for so many low points, was there to witness her son’s milestone.
“There weren’t many people left in the building at that point, and I had to walk down four rows just to find someone to tell them that was my son,” she said.
Jo said the most exciting part about being the mother of a hockey player is seeing her son get called up to the NHL. Whenever her son is playing somewhat close to the Toronto area, Jo always makes an effort to see him play. It’s part of an unbreakable bond that was reinforced in those early days filled with doubt and uncertainty.
“Without his father being with us, I feel a little more responsibility to keep close to him,” Jo said. “A day doesn’t go by that we don’t talk to each other.”
That bond was evident this season when Harry was called up to Pittsburgh last month and suited up for a game in Buffalo. A treacherous winter storm was blanketing Toronto at the time, but Jo still made the drive to see her son play.
“It was not an option not to go,” she said.
It’s a commitment that Jo made to her son even before he left home for Port Alberni in 2005, and one that was made stronger when the family experienced loss in the passing of Harry’s father.
“Hockey was something that always kept my dad and I close. It was a father-son thing,” Harry said. “But when I didn’t have him to lean on, my mom took that role. When most players call their fathers to talk about how they played in a game, I call my mom. I had someone to share it with. She’s played a big role in getting me to where I am today.”
And that’s why it’s understandable that Jo is perhaps more excited than her son for his success as a pro hockey player.
“To me it’s an investment in a passion,” she said. “You have to get on board and when it starts to accelerate you can’t stop being supportive. How can you?”