Zach Miskovic recently finished his second season as captain of the Indy Fuel, and eighth playing professional hockey. Miskovic returned to the team this season after spending most of last season in Indy in addition to a stint in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers. Miskovic, 31, has spent the majority of seven seasons in the AHL and played a key veteran role for the Fuel this season. He took on a player-assistant coach role and assisted first-year head coach Bernie John with his veteran leadership of the younger players both on and off the ice. Sunday night, Miskovic was named the Fuel’s defenseman of the year. He was kind enough to speak with us one afternoon recently on a wide variety of topics. Here is what he had to say:
BHQ: How old were you when you started playing hockey and how did you first get involved in the sport?
ZM: I started skating at three like my older brother, and went to the rink and watched him get into hockey. I turned into a rink rat watching him play, and told my dad I wanted to do that too. I got skates and a stick, took some lessons and started playing year-round. My parents would say it was to help burn off all of my energy so I could sleep at night. I tried all the sports but loved hockey and still do, as I am almost 28 years into it now.
BHQ: You’re from outside of Chicago originally, and played Junior Hockey with the USHL Cedar Rapids Rough Riders. What are some experiences you gained in the USHL and some challenges of moving away from home so young?
ZM: I moved to Cedar Rapids at 16; you have to move to play high-level junior hockey unless you happen to live near a USHL team. Leaving home, you live with a billet (housing) family and you get to meet a lot of new people. Moving and going to a new high school can be difficult, but for me was a unique opportunity and I looked forward to playing at the highest level. Living with a new family, you can have some bumps or ups and downs, as I was in Cedar Rapids for three years. I give a lot of big credit to my coach at this level, helping me improve my technique.
BHQ: What led you to St. Lawrence University and what are some of your fondest memories from playing collegiately? How did your game evolve there?
ZM: Moving from Iowa to upstate New York was a pretty big change. While playing juniors, the oldest you can be is the year you turn 21 if you’re enrolled in classes. I was 20 and looking to go to school. My coach helped me get my name out there and back then, you were allowed three or four school visits. I took one visit to another college but they wanted me to commit that day, and I wanted to see other schools. As soon as I visited St. Lawrence, I fell in love with it. It just felt right, like when you walk into a house and it just feels like home. I thought the staff was a good fit and my coach and family helped me make the decision. I enjoyed all four years and double-majored in math and fine arts. That kind of balanced out strenuous days of hockey–brain crunching numbers, and drawing and printmaking–all kinds of things. I like to be handy and build, keep my hands busy. College was huge for me; some of my favorite memories were spending time with my hockey class. SLU puts you into a first year program–a small group of people and you get to really know them all. It was funny, the male and female hockey players kind of picked each other out and we all stay in touch today.
BHQ: Was there a specific moment where you knew you were going to play professional hockey? How did that feel?
ZM: I was kind of a late bloomer, always a string bean being told to get bigger and stronger. My billet family in Iowa was a trainer, he helped me put on weight and get into better shape. I went to pro camp with the NHL Washington Capitals after my freshman year and that gave me drive, saying, “Hey maybe this is a possibility.” The next year, I didn’t get invited, they kind of told me, “We’ve seen you and want you to keep developing,” so that gave me even more drive to develop more. I worked with a family adviser and he kind of helped me out with planning and putting me in touch to talk to people. My senior year I knew I had to shoot the puck a lot and play good sound defense, which I did, while earning a lot of playing time. I put up a few goals and signed with the Capitals right after my senior year in 2009. You’re kind of bummed when the season ends, but the next day I got a call from the Capitals and that was exciting. I moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania and played for the Capitals’ AHL team, where I really learned the pro game.
BHQ: You have been traded, called up and loaned mid-season during your career a few times. How is that transition, going to different teams or even different leagues, just on the fly and sometimes playing in games with little practice? What helps you be successful in those situations?
ZM: I played for four teams in one year; San Antonio (AHL), they sent me down to the Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL) for conditioning, then recalled me, then sent me back down, then traded me to Rockford (AHL), who traded me to the Iowa Wild (AHL). The key is a lot of communication. Once you play for quite a few years, there are only so many systems–how to forecheck, how to defend, how they want the defense to play in the offensive zone, etc. What helps is finding out who you are going to play with on day one and finding out, what do you call this play, what do you say when you want the puck, just figuring out the X’s and O’s and knowing your partner so you’re on the same page. Sometimes that might happen an hour or a couple days before your first game. That’s really something you need to develop from day one as a pro, that communication that helps you survive.
BHQ: What accomplishments are you most proud of during your hockey career?
ZM: My first year pro was a big standout year. We won the AHL Calder Cup, and very few people get that honor. I was thankful to play for an amazing team in the playoffs and learned the building blocks for a successful career from veteran players. Those leaders kind of showed me the ropes, showed me how to help others and now I’m giving back to our younger players the same way those leaders did early in my career. Hopefully someday, these young guys become veterans and pass things on to the next group of younger players and continue to give back to the game. Also, being part of my hometown Chicago Blackhawks organization, playing with the Chicago Wolves and Rockford IceHogs has been great.
BHQ: Rumor has it that you have decided to call Indianapolis home full-time now. What led to that decision for you and your growing family?
ZM: I really enjoy giving back to this community, especially skating with our littlest fans after games. We had our son last January and we really felt that if we’re coming back, this is a good spot for us. We have some local family here, and we both thought it was a good spot to put some roots down and raise Maddox and grow our family here. The schools near us have high ratings, there are a lot of parks around Indy and Fishers and the area has a lot to offer. The community is great and we found a house and all the stars just kind of aligned for us to stay and make this home.
BHQ: What is a normal weekday like for a member of the Fuel?
ZM: We usually show up at the rink about 8:30 or 9 in the morning depending on the day. Usually we start with some dry land training, then get on the ice for practice, then video review or a meeting. We are usually done with practice by about 1, then eat lunch. At that point, we are generally free for the evening unless we have events we need to attend. I head home to the family and catch up on any chores around the house, then it’s family time. We like to go to a park, or the Children’s Museum which is just great, or the zoo. We are big fans of the Indianapolis Zoo. Sometimes depending on the day we’ll get a workout in at the Fuel Tank at Fishers, just depends on the travel schedule and things like that.
BHQ: Which players, past or present, do you enjoy watching, and what do you try to take from their technique to add to your own? How would you describe your playing style?
ZM: Oh wow, great question. Defenseman Scott Niedermayer always blew me away. I saw them in the playoffs when they won (Anaheim Ducks, 2007). He was such a great skater, saw the whole ice really well, made plays and had just a great career. He brought it every single day and I looked up to him. That’s a guy that maybe not a lot of players would pick out, but I just always loved watching him. Also I played with some during my time in the Capitals’ system. John Carlson and my old roommate in Hershey, Braden Holtby–an unbelievable goalie and person, watching them develop has been great. My playing style, I think it changes based on the needs of the team. I guess you could say I’m a role player. I try to concentrate on my skating ability and early in my career, I focused more on playmaking and really shooting the puck. Currently, I’m a more defensive-defenseman, concentrating on blocking shots, playing good sound defense and working the penalty kill unit.
BHQ: What are some of the best coaching tips you have received in your career and what would you pass on to younger players?
ZM: I have to say really focus on your skating development and edgework. You can work stickhandling and shooting everyday at home off the ice, but on the ice really focus on skating–it has to be at the highest level. Don’t worry so much about the puck on the ice during practice, a lot of young guys think no pucks, no fun, but you want to develop the skating to outskate the opponent. Really work on your balance and your coaches should emphasize you don’t have to have a stick in your hand to improve. Learn how to turn both directions fast, stop and start, then add stick and puck and build from there.
BHQ: So we’re about the same age now, early 30’s. I can say I don’t feel old, but I definitely know I’m not 18 anymore. Do you do anything differently now that you didn’t used to, in order to keep your body functioning at that high level?
ZM: (Laughs), oh definitely. I tell young guys you can go out on the ice without stretching but you will pay for it later. I really focus on getting a good warmup before practice. Lifting has changed, you want to develop that good “dad strength” early in your career when you can lift heavy and really get after it. Now, I don’t go quite as heavy and really focus on functional movement and balance. You can really train smarter not harder once you have some years on you.
BHQ: What are some goals you have set for yourself, both long term and short term? Where do you see yourself in five years?
ZM: I think goal setting is very important. I want to play 10 years, anything past that is a bonus. I think 10 years pro is a really nice career in this line of work, so I want at minimum another two seasons. I passed 400 professional games this season and playing 500 is a milestone I’d like to get to and surpass and see how my body is holding up. I’m not shutting any doors, any other opportunities I would entertain, but 10 years and 500 games and I’d be satisfied. One day, maybe getting into the business side of the game would be interesting, I have learned a lot in my career by meeting a bunch of front office people. I always try to learn from everyone I can, learn from (Fuel head coach) Bernie John. I tried to really help him in his first season as coach, really sit in on some meetings and pick his brain, and that added to my knowledge. I’m in no rush to get into coaching, it’s a possibility, but we’ll see.
BHQ: What are some of the challenges and rewards of being the captain?
ZM: It’s a really nice honor from the coaching staff and the organization–confidence in me to lead the team, communicate and build chemistry and keep everyone on board and informed. Confidence in me that I will put in extra time with younger guys, I’m more than willing to give back like the pros that I played with when I started. It’s part of game, hopefully they take what I pass along and they give back in the future and continue to grow.
BHQ: What do you enjoy about playing for the Fuel?
ZM: I just love the community. Also, the renovation of the coliseum blew me away. I played here when I was younger and remember how it used to be, and the first time I came here after the renovation, I didn’t know it had been updated. Walking in not knowing it just blew me away how nice it is now. Obviously too, the Hallett family passion and drive is contagious, that’s what makes me so excited. They’re giving back so much to the community, I love it. They want to build a winning franchise.
BHQ: You were paired with rookie Chris Williams a good bit of the season. How did your playing styles complement each other?
ZM: Willie’s attitude and personality–it’s why he’s done so well, he wants to learn and get better. He just has such a desire to be the best he can be, he took advantage of every opportunity. He understood the circumstances, took advice very well and really cultivated that into outstanding play and growth. It was awesome to see him want to learn and be his best, step up to the plate as a big guy to protect some players–which earns you a lot of respect very quickly. He did a heck of a job when needed to, he’s a good player too, and just an unbelievable human being off the ice. He became my roommate on road trips and getting to know him on the personal level like that was great, that really helped the on-ice chemistry.
BHQ: Now that we are headed into the offseason, how are you going to occupy your time?
ZM: I’m going to take some time first with my family, then probably try to teach some private hockey lessons and get some learn to skate sessions going. That’s on my radar, to try to get going so I can stay busy in the offseason. Who knows, I may try to just get outside and do some landscaping over the summer and really enjoy the nice weather.
BHQ: Give us a little insight on the team. Who is the practical joker? What are some good times the team has had this year, that the fans may not have seen?
ZM: For the most part, guys all live together so it comes down to roommates poking at each other and having good times. The biggest thing as far as the good times, is the long road trips. I didn’t get to make the trip, but like the trip to Alaska–that’s a huge bonding experience for the guys on the bus or in airports, and you really get to know each individual. Especially early in the season like the Alaska trip, the team really played some good hockey after spending so much time traveling together like that. I would love to go to another Colts game again next season, like we did last season.
BHQ: I saved the million dollar question for last. Can Fuel fans expect to see you back next season?
ZM: I sure hope so. I’m planning on it, if they’ll have me back. You never know in this business, but I really hope to continue to be a part of this organization. There is always a lot going on, but we reside here and I would love to come back with the Fuel next season.
Blue HQ would like to thank Zach for his time, and also for being such a great ambassador for the sport and team to Central Indiana. Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachMiskovic and be sure to stay tuned to Blue HQ as we bring you Fuel news all offseason, along with in-depth coverage of the Colts, Pacers and your favorite Indiana college teams.