(photo credit: Alaska Aces)
“I just like to tell guys to give it time, you gotta let things run their course..if you aren’t playing right now you have to figure out what it is the coaches want, be proactive, talk to the coaching staff, talk to me and then just realize what role they need you to fill.”
Nick Mazzolini, Anchorage native and Captain of the Alaska Aces, feels both blessed and lucky to play hockey in the community he grew up in. It’s a tight knit community, and it’s something very special. He certainly doesn’t take for granted that he plays in his hometown, where on any given night he plays, his old coaches, teammates and his family and friends are there to support him and his team. For him, it’s an unreal feeling and despite playing for almost the last four years in the place he was raised, every night he has a home game, he’s excited to play.
Mazzolini started skating like most professional players, around the age of four, and began playing organized hockey at six years old. For many kids who go on to play the game, their parents are the driving force behind that first desire, but Nick’s parents didn’t know the first thing when it came to hockey. They were from Montana and moved up to Anchorage for the oil. It was a friend of the family who was a hockey coach that started the spark for Nick and as they say the rest is history. His parents had a lot of learning to do as their son played on a team.
“I remember one Christmas, the team gave us some presents. They were some hockey DVDs and we had to look up forecheck and backcheck, you know pretty basic terms but we weren’t sure what they were. My parents learned along with me.”
Mazzolini played with his coach’s kids who were a couple years older than he was and he remembers playing against his coach’s son at a few tournaments. His younger brother Andrew also played hockey, playing a little club hockey at the University of Las Vegas, making it to both regionals and nationals with the team. Andrew is a mechanical engineer now, working for an oil service company in Anchorage. His whole family supported his hockey journey and they inspired him to continue to work hard and play and they gave a lot of their time so that he could succeed.
“They sacrificed a lot for me to get to where I am today. My mother, father, brother, sister, they spent a lot of time at the rink for me. I mean I’m sure they were bored out of their minds and cold just so that I could skate around and try and realize my dreams. I definitely owe everything I have to their support.”
Growing up, Mazzolini definitely had players that he looked up to and inspired his game. The closest NHL team to Alaska is the Vancouver Canucks and Pavel Bure was a favourite of Mazzolini’s. He distinctly remembers his Aunt, who lived in Vancouver, managing to get Bure’s autograph on a shirt for him. Although he liked the Canucks, it was the influence of his good friend Nate Thompson that turned him on to the Detroit Redwings. He had a laundry list of players that caught his eye.
“I was always a big Brendan Shanahan fan…there’s a lot of great people there. You have Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov, you have the Russian five, Chris Osgood, all those guys I grew up watching and loving.”
He played hockey in high school in Anchorage but then went to Andover, Massachusetts to prep school for his Senior Year. It was there that he met Cory Schneider and the two of them attended a Green Bay Gamblers showcase camp held during the summer. Nick remembers reading a USA Hockey magazine with his father while Cory was out on the ice and seeing his name listed under the NAHL draft. An expansion team, the Dayton Gems, had drafted him and he wasn’t even aware because there had been a coaching change. It was the beginning of a rough start in the world of the NAHL for Mazzolini, as the Dayton Gems were “around for a cup of coffee” and he was dispersal drafted out to the Toledo Icediggers. He played with them for about a month , all the while he asked them to shop him around to other teams, which they weren’t really amenable to, to put it kindly. Eventually, he ended up with the Texas Tornadoes, and it was the right fit for the growth of his game.
“I was 18-19 when this all happened. It wasn’t the smoothest start but it worked out for the best. I went down to Texas where I spent a year and a half, had an unreal time, met a lot of great friends, and won a couple championships.”
The Tornadoes coach, Tony Curtale, had a major impact on Mazzolini. Coach Curtale is considered one of the premier developers of young talent in North America. He led the Texas Tornadoes to 40 or more winning games and a division championship each season from 1999-2003. Between 2001 and 2006 he coached the team to four NAHL Robertson Cup Championships and got a fifth in the 2011-2012 season.
It was Curtale’s guidance, not just on the ice, that really helped Nick when he was living on his own. Curtale was rough around the edges, old school and intense. Mazzolini described him as the type of coach who treated his players as they behaved. If they acted like a professional, Curtale would treat them like a professional. If they didn’t, then that was a different story.
“He was more than a coach, he was intense. I know that he was misunderstood by a lot of people for sure. He did a great job and I loved playing for him and I know the rest of the guys did too. He’d win games and he did exactly what was asked of him. I loved playing for Tony.”
After playing with the Tornadoes and the NAHL, Mazzolini decided to pursue college hockey, opting to get an education while playing the sport he loved. He took the college route for himself because it was the smart decision, knowing that hockey doesn’t last forever. He attended Providence College, home of the Friars, playing hockey and pursuing a marketing degree. He played four seasons of NCAA hockey from 2005-2009 and scored 25 goals, contributed 42 assists for a total of 67 points in 128 games played and registered 147 penalty minutes. His junior year he had his first taste of the captaincy wearing the “A” for the Friars playing in 32 games. Looking back, Mazzolini doesn’t regret taking the college route despite it slowing down his professional playing career.
“Coach Curtale absolutely hated college because it’s nothing like the pros. It’s like taking a step backward in your hockey development. You just run and gun, there isn’t as much systems. I think the only thing it took away from me was years. I was already older heading in to college so by the time I was out I was a 25 year old rookie in the ECHL but in no way shape or form do I regret it.”
Mazzolini joined the ECHL Alaska Aces as a rookie for the 2009-2010 season and had a fantastic year, leading the team in goals, assists and points. He was also selected as a 2010 ECHL All-Star. The following season he opted to join HC Bolzano in Italy. With Italian roots on both sides of the family, Nick went overseas with the idea of applying for dual citizenship so that he could play for them in international play. Things didn’t end up working out but the time he spent in Italy was a memorable one, full of good food, amazing travel, and a great group of guys that he played with. He then returned to the Aces, where he has been ever since.
During the 2012-2013 season, Mazzolini served as the alternate captain for the Aces and was named to the All-ECHL Second Team. He led his team in goals and was tied for second in the league with 36 for the year. Known for his shorthanded goal scoring success at Providence College, Mazzolini tied the league in shorthanded goals with 4 and had over 20 multi-point games that year. He essentially hadn’t missed a stride with the Aces despite going overseas for a season and his dedication and work ethic came through both on and off the ice. At the beginning of this season, Mazzolini wanted the captaincy and he actively pursued the responsibility.
“I definitely went out and tried to get it. It took awhile for them to appoint me captain. They were very adamant about the players getting to know me before appointing me captain, which is a wise decision. It didn’t slow me down; it just made me hungrier for that captaincy. It’s something I really like. I like leading, I don’t like following, that is kind of what has got me in trouble before.”
He takes his role as captain very seriously and he has a lot of pride in his leadership role. He is honored that the coaches have placed trust in his ability but it means even more that the players and his peers look to him to make the right decision in certain situations. He knows it can be a little daunting for many of the new guys to not only play in the ECHL but also to make the trek to Alaska to play.
“When you first hear you are going to Alaska, I can only imagine what goes through most of the guys’ minds. But as soon as they get up here they see how well taken care of we are. The guys love playing here.”
As Captain, Mazzolini tries to share the little tidbits of knowledge he has picked up in his hockey career. He draws from the players he’s played with, like ECHL Hall of Famer and Alaska Aces phenom Wes Goldie or former Aces captain Brian Swanson. His personal journey has given him a lot of perspective on the game. He has battled through adversity and injury to get to where he is now and one of the most important things he has learned is patience with letting things play out and take their course.
“I like to tell guys, you know give it time. I barely made it onto the Alaska Aces roster my rookie season after I had knee surgery in the offseason. I went to Peoria camp and I was on the 21 day IR. I think the only reason they kept me around was because Brent Thompson was the assistant coach for Peoria the year before and he actually went to the camp. He saw me skate and knew I could bring something to the team so he stuck with me and I’m appreciative for that.”
Battling through an injury Mazzolini says is a challenge, but it makes you stronger. His junior year at Providence College, he went knee to knee during the playoffs at Boston College. He dislocated his kneecap and tried to rehab over the summer but then continued to have problems with it his senior year before opting for surgery at the end of the season.
“The rehab, it never ends. You are always working on it every single day. I mean it’s a pain, but it keeps you honest, it keeps you motivated, and it keeps you doing something.”
Players coming in to any league have to be proactive about their game Mazzolini stresses, and they have to be willing to be flexible about their role on the team. If they aren’t playing, they have to figure out what the coaches want, talk to them and talk to their captain to see what role needs to be filled. When you are just starting out, you really have to be a multi-purpose tool, be prepared to step in and the opportunities will come.
“It blew my mind when my buddy Nate Thompson was in Providence (Bruins) while I was playing for the Friars and he told me the 3rd and 4th line guys were getting called up more than the 1st and 2nd line guys because those are the guys that get hurt and need to be replaced. It really kind of opened my eyes and I realized that hey if you are not scoring or you aren’t producing offensively you have to be able to affect the game in a positive way. Whether it’s the PK, whether its hitting or whether its bringing energy to the team.”
Mazzolini’s patience, perseverance and letting his game take time to develop has paid in Aces for the captain. The numbers he has put up this season are impressive, along with ECHL Sherwood Hockey Player of the Week honors and runner-up status for ECHL Player of the Month honors for February. In his 61 games played this season, he is at a point a game pace with 21 goals and 40 assists, with much of that success being shared with his linemates Peter Sivak (26g-46a, 72 points in 58 games played) and Brendan Connolly (20g-26a, 46 points in 46 games played), who is now in the AHL playing with the Abbotsford Heat. Mazzolini thinks their success is a combination of all of them working toward a common goal and that their skillsets complement one another so well.
“Connolly reminded me a lot of myself, just a little bit smaller stature in body and he has a nose for the net. He sees the ice so well and makes passes that you wouldn’t expect to get through. Pete just has such a quick and hard accurate shot that he can just snipe from anywhere but he’s also smart enough to know what to do if you are cycling in the corner. He can get himself open or create some space.”
Sivak, Mazzolini, and Connolly have been able to find each other out on the ice and get the bounces to make the plays that score goals. Mazzolini says that they’ve taken advantage of it for as long as they can. With Connolly up in the AHL, Tyler Mosienko has stepped in and filled his role nicely, recording 3g-10a-13p in 16 games played, although not all of those game has he been on the top line with Sivak and Mazzolini.
The Aces are making yet another playoff push and again they find themselves in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference, led by their captain Nick Mazzolini. The Aces have an unreal home record every season and their Olympic sized ice surface may play some role in their at-home success. It takes some adjustment time for the visiting team, but Mazzolini doesn’t think it is any different than what the Aces experience visiting NHL sized rinks where there is less time and space. He thinks the secret to the Aces incredible home stand is in the people that fill the stands and support them in the community.
“I think it’s our fans, the atmosphere and just the way we feed off of the fans. They encourage us when we are up and when we are down. They keep us going and as the season goes on and guys build more of a rapport with the town, we just seem to get stronger.”
One thing is for certain, part of the Aces’ success lies with their Captain, who like his team, gets stronger as the season progresses.