Them Over There | Getting to know the Sheffield Steelers Zack Fitzgerald (#OnFire Repost)

Zack Fitzgerald, or Fitzy as he’s so often reffered to as, is a player who divides opinion. Some fans love him (particularly those in Orange!) and some cannot stand him. To look at his stats he doesn’t look like much. Two goals this season so far and not quite as penalty minutes as his fellow Steeler Guillaume Desbiens, some might argue that he’s simply there to rile up the opposition and cause them to make mistakes.

However, off the ice he’s almost a completely different character. He’s family orientated, loves his wife Crystal unconditionally and his English Bulldog Izzy is clearly a very well loved pooch. Honestly, he’s probably the kind of guy you’d want to be mates with. He always has time for fans of other teams and he’s even willing to flash that cheesy gap-toothed grin for a photo – once he’s commented on how uncool your jersey is first!

When I asked him about how he felt about being the guy that people loved to hate he laughed. “Definitely doesn’t bother me, I love it!” He begins as he recounts the way he finds things on the ice. “Why wouldn’t you want to be the guy everyone hates when you are playing rival teams? I can definitely get riled up sometimes but at the end of the day, I love it.” It’s pretty obvious he does from the reactions he gives the crowd. “Being booed is the away team motivation. We want to win every game and we know when we enter away rinks, we are the enemy, being booed is just more fuel to the fire. I’d have to say I am one of the most hated players in Coventry.”

So what do you enjoy most about visiting the Skydome? I ask and again, he laughs. “Well winning in the Skydome is what I most enjoy! I know that comment won’t get many great reactions… but otherwise, the banter I guess.”

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Fellow Sheffield enforcer Guillaume Desbiens. Photo: Scott Wiggins

I move on to the chemistry that is so obvious between him and fellow Steeler Guillaume Desbiens, watching the two of them together is one of the best things about watching the Steelers play and you can tell they get on well. I spoke to Desbiens recently and he explained that they had been friends for many years, this is evident in the way they interact and knowing that coaches often ask the opinions of their players when signing new prospects I asked if Zack had anything to do with Desbiens coming to Sheffield. “Desbiens and I go way back.” He begins to recount the tale of how they first met. “We played together back in Winnipeg, MB, Canada for the Manitoba Moose. We have moved on to different teams in between being reconnected, but I would say we have always remained friends.” He goes on to explain how friendships can be strained playing hockey. “It’s hard to keep contact with everyone in the hockey world, even friends back home, but you recognise good people when you meet them and that makes it easy to start right back where you left off. I have the upmost respect for Dez.” We then move on to whether he had any bearing on Desbiens move to the Steel City. “I however can’t take credit for him coming to Sheffield, when Paul [Thompson] told me he was talking to Dez, I was so pumped! He is the type of player every team wants. A great teammate, an all-round player that will score, hit, fight and work hard no matter what, he brings leadership and experience as well.”

I’d recently seen a tweet he posted which referred to a lot of people on social media voicing their opinions about him and his response to that. I wanted to ask him how it affected him and what caused him to make such a bold statement.

“Well…” He begins to recount his side of things. “Basically, you get to a point where all of the keyboard warriors from the opposing teams’ fanbase, just won’t stop tweeting about why you won’t fight someone. First off, there is no room for just a fighter on the team anymore.” A statement I wholeheartedly agree with and something we covered almost a year ago now. [Click here to read] “There was years ago…” He continues. “I know no one as a spectator wants to hear that, but there isn’t room for it.” I hear you Zack, I really do. “The definition of an enforcer, isn’t fight every opportunity you can, don’t ever turn down a fight, fight every shift, fight, fight, fight. The responsibility of that position is to stand up for your teammates, to create space for the other guys to play without fear, within the rules. Penalties will happen, hockey is a fast moving game, accidents will happen, but you are out there to try and keep the game safe for your teammates. The referees can’t always control the game or situation. There are unwritten rules among players…”

He then begins to discuss the weekend in which he plowed into the Coventry Blaze’s Brian Stewart. “… Look at the situation with Klotz and I, I accidentally ran into Stewart, I wouldn’t ever intentionally run a goalie, despite what anyone thinks.” I can tell it’s a situation that bothered him a lot. “I play the game hard, I took the puck to the net. Normally in that situation you are going to get hit by a defenseman or taken down or whatever, I protected myself and ran into the goalie. If I could go back, looking at it in retrospect,  I would have just shot the puck from the outside, I would have done a million different things, but what happened, happened.”

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Klotz v Fitzgerald. Photo: Scott Wiggins

Zack explains how things went down between him and Klotz. “Then Klotz challenges me, because that’s his job, we were up 4-0 in that game, I had no good reason to fight other than to pay my dues I was owed for running into Stewart. I showed up, we both did our job. That’s just an example.”

He then returns to explaining about the keyboard warrior abuse he received. “But when you get people trying to tell you what should have done, or you’re a chicken for not fighting, or “I thought you never backed down?” it gets to a point where I felt like I needed to defend myself from all the keyboard warriors out there, who consistently tell guys to fight on the ice, who have probably never been in a single fight in their life. I don’t show up at anyone’s job and tell them how to do it. I’ve been playing professionally for 12 seasons and hockey for 27 years, I think I know what’s going on.”

After that I moved away from the negativity and onto something more pressing in the eyes of UK fans. The longevity of his career in the EIHL. “I want to play hockey for as long as the game will allow it. The way I play may restrict that outlook, but I love the game, I always have. It has given me every opportunity in my life up to this moment. I enjoy sharing it with my wife and I hope we can spread the moment with children soon.” And is there anything he’d miss if he were to leave the UK and play elsewhere? “I’ll miss the atmosphere in all the rinks here.” He says, “Hockey in the UK is electric, the fans are compassionate and it amps us players up.” Without prompting, he continues. “My favourite part about hockey here is when you get a loyal fan bringing a new face to the game. I don’t think I have heard of a situation where that new person didn’t want to get right back to the rink for the next game, it’s addictive and ever growing here in the UK.”

I, personally can vouch for that. Since I too was one of those new faces, taken to a Steelers game back in September of 2015. I haven’t looked back since. You almost forget your life before Ice Hockey and anyone who hasn’t yet been introduced into the world in the UK, can vouch for the fact that quite often, if you don’t know about it, you don’t see it. Ice Hockey at times can be invisible in the UK, but once you’re a part of this wonderful world, you don’t ever want to leave it.

I wanted to discuss a little bit about the charity #support25 game in honour of Adam Calder and how different it was to play something that wasn’t really competitive but designed more to be a bit of fun. It didn’t matter who won or lost and both teams appeared to have a lot of fun, despite the situation. “It was all about the man of the night, Adam Calder, his situation and showing support to him and everyone struggling.” Zack has been very vocal in previous interviews about how he takes every opportunity to help out charities that are focused on cancer in some way. “At the end of the day, we are all a part of the hockey family, I’m happy to help out any possible way I can to show how much I care about it, my teammates all feel the same way. He has given a lot to that city and the show of support is amazing there in Coventry and throughout the EIHL. Thank you to everyone who has given their time, money and support to the great cause.”

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Zack in his ‘custom’ Ovechkin jersey. Photo: Scott Wiggins

So naturally, being a Washington Capitals fan, I just had to ask him why he chose Ovechkin to emulate in the charity game. “It was just a spur of the moment thing. I don’t mind being the brunt of a joke, or trying to get people to laugh, or just relieve some stress by acting a fool.” He says with a smile. “I takes my visor and from there just got the idea of Ovi, I have an 8 in my number, pulled out my tongues on my skates. added a skate lace to my waist band, took a few slapshots and just goofed around, for a good cause. I’m sure the Coventry players though I was an idiot and maybe some of my own teammates, but I don’t care, some people laughed about it and that’s all that matters. When you are part of something that is for a good cause, but also for a bit of a sad situation, sometimes a smile can go a long way.”

Well said Zack and it certainly made me and quite a few others smile when we realised what you’d done! So thank you for that and thank you for this interview.

The other part of this interview can be found here: Zack Fitzgerald | A Snapshot of the Man

Or for a little more about the beginnings of Fitzgerald and Desbiens relationship off the ice, you could take a look here: Guillaume Desbiens | The Finer Points of Being an Ice Guardian and a Parent

This interview was originally posted in the January edition of OnFire, which is no longer on sale. However, February’s edition will be available shortly at all of the Coventry Blaze’s home fixtures throughout February. 

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