It was no surprise when John Knisley and Mike Zalewski joined the Vernon Vipers as a package deal.
The two upstate New Yorkers have pretty much been inseparable for the past six years, starting when they became minor hockey teammates in Syracuse, a city of 150,000, known as the educational hub of central New York.
They then joined a Midget travel team for a couple seasons before playing last year with the Syracuse Stars of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
Their reasons for coming to the B.C. Hockey League are simple – to play as high a calibre of Junior A hockey as possible. Even if it means living 4,300 kilometres from home.
“A lot of time you have to leave home to take the next step because the junior hockey isn’t as good as maybe the USHL or out here in the BCHL,” said Zalewski, an eighteen-year-old New Hartford product (one hour east of Syracuse).
Having Knisley on board played a huge part in Zalewski’s decision to join the Vipers.
“Coming out here alone is a tough thing to do. Either way I wanted to come out here, but him being on board definitely helped. Right away you know your roommate, you know who you’re living with.”
Added Knisley: “It’s a long way from home and at a young age it’s hard to leave, but knowing I’m coming out here with a buddy… made things a little easier.”
Knisley, who already has an NCAA Division 1 scholarship with Cornell Big Red, believes living away from home will only help him prepare for university life.
“A lot of kids go to college and it’s all just thrown at them right there and they’re kind of oblivious to it. We kind of have an advantage because we get an extra year to prepare and do all that time management and juggle everything in our daily schedule without our parents around.”
With a quarter of the season gone, Vipers’ head coach Mark Ferner feels the New York duo has shown a rapid adjustment to life in the BCHL after 14 games. Knisley has posted 4-6-10 and Zalewski has 3-5-8.
With chemistry already built in, it was a no-brainer for the Viper bench boss to have Knisley centre a line with Zalewski and rookie Aaron Hadley.
“They had been close, playing together growing up, so they came as a package,” said Ferner.
“They’re smart hockey players – they just have to be told once and they get it.”
Standing just 5-foot-8, Knisley is the shortest player on the team, relying on quick feet and sound hockey sense to generate his chances. In contrast, Zalewski is 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and is able to crash the corners to create turnovers with a punishing forecheck.
Yet, Zalewski warned it would be a mistake to dismiss the baby-faced Knisley’s physical presence.
“He’s kind of always been the smaller guy, but he still plays hard and he’s always hit hard his whole life,” grinned Zalewski.
Despite having New York zip codes, neither one particularly cares for the Rangers or Islanders. Knisley grew up in Pittsford (near Rochester and 90 minutes west of Buffalo) and is a huge Sabres fan. He lists Buffalo native Patrick Kaleta as his favourite Sabre.
“He’s a buddy from home, we just love him,” smiled Knisley, who noted Rochester’s Brian Gionta is his favourite NHLer.
Zalewski, meanwhile, didn’t have to look far to find hockey games growing up. The second-youngest of five hockey-crazy siblings, he spent a lot of time watching oldest brother Steve play ECAC hockey with the Clarkson University Golden Knights.
Steve, a fifth-round draft pick (153rd overall) of the San Jose Sharks, is now with the Worcester Sharks (AHL affiliate).
His other brother, Rich, played last season with the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the Southern Professional Hockey League, and his older sister, Erin, plays field hockey at Geneseo State University. He also has a little sister coming up the hockey ranks.
“All of us were playing hockey at one point, so my parents had a big task when we were growing up, and I’m really thankful for what they did for me. They gave me a lot of opportunities,” said Zalewksi.