Menifee’s Matt Zenzola An Inland Hockey Trailblazer
By HARVEY M. KAHN
Featured Writer / HarveyMKahn@aol.com
MENIFEE (Calif.) — Paloma Valley High School graduate Matt Zenzola was a key member of the Wildcats’ 2011 Sunbelt League title-winning volleyball team.
At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Zenzola also was a sought after football player. And as a left-hander who could hit and pitch, he got looks for his baseball skills.But without a desirable scholarship offer and nothing to lose, Zenzola decided to tryout as a professional hockey goalie.
Liking his size and agility, representatives from the Southern Professional Hockey League began talking to him about signing a contract. Now in his fifth year as a pro, Zenzola says he is seizing his opportunity and continues to tap into his enormous upside. However, advancing as an undrafted free agent is a difficult course.
“They didn’t have youth hockey around here (Menifee) when I went to school. I never played college hockey and did not get drafted, so as a walk-on I’ve got to be better than everyone,” said Zenzola by phone from Florida where he plays for the minor-league Pensacola Ice Flyers.
Unlike when he was a teen, the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are now major sponsors of youth development programs in and around Southern California.
But his agent, Gary Elliot, said Zenzola has been attracting inquiries from teams at the higher level American Hockey League, primarily the Bakersfield Condors, the top minor league affiliate of the NHL Edmonton Oilers.
Elliot said his client created more interest after his record-setting performance in leading Pensacola to the 2016 Southern Professional Hockey League President’s Cup championship.
“He was named playoff MVP after becoming the first goalie in league history to post a perfect 7-0 record in the playoffs,” Elliot said.
Zenzola said he first played “street hockey” as a kid with his older brothers and played junior hockey in Escondido.
“Hockey has grown 100-percent at the youth level, but there are long drives and expensive equipment that keeps many from playing,” said Zenzola, who added that new goalie equipment can cost $6,000. He currently runs a campaign to provide youth with used equipment.Zenzola explained that teams at the lower level of pro hockey are independent and not affiliated with an NHL team, giving players flexibility to go wherever needed. He said minor league teams are in constant flux. For example, the Ice Flyers roster has almost completely turned over since the start of the season.
After getting his feet wet at Double-A level Evansville of the East Coast Hockey League, he played in two charity games for the Anaheim Ducks and scrimmages with the team informally during the summer.
“Matty will be in camp with Bakersfield again next year and his chances of being signed by Edmonton are very good,” Elliot said.
“There is not much difference in skill level in pro hockey but higher-level pros are smarter. They know where to play, can place the puck better and have a quicker release on top,” Zenzola said.
About his chances as an undrafted free agent, Zenzola said: “I can’t worry about anything. Just keep playing my game, work on the little things and stay away from injuries until it’s my time. I’m getting better coaching as I go and see myself improving.”
That said, Zenzola realizes that he can’t afford to have even one bad night.
“You never knows who’s watching. I’ve got my foot in the door. Now, I’m going to run with it,” he said.