“THE toughest job in sport.”
Sheffield Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson is not often prone to exaggeration. So when he describes the role of defenceman Zack Fitzgerald in the way he does above, it carries plenty of weight, particularly given his years in the sport, coaching both in the UK and Europe.
Now in his second season in Sheffield, 31-year-old Fitzgerald has long been a fans’ favourite, making the move to South Yorkshire after one season with Elite League rivals the Braehead Clan.
He was one of Thompson’s first signings in the summer of 2015, quickly proving himself a major asset and helping the club land a record fifth EIHL regular season title in March this year.
Fitzgerald travelled south from Glasgow with something of a reputation.
He is the Steelers’ main ‘Enforcer’ – essentially the man out on the ice tasked with protecting his team-mates and most likely the one called upon to respond if an opponent takes liberties with a team-mate.
Forward Guillaume Desbiens is another to ‘respond’ but, more often than not, it will be Fitzgerald stepping up to fight an opponent, normally someone who fulfils a similar role on the opposing team.
Fighting in ice hockey is something that continues to divide opinion – it always will – with North American players and their British counterparts more inclined to adopt that as part of their natural game, while it remains largely absent among teams in Europe.
On average, Fitzgerald finds himself involved in between 15-20 fights a season. In all, Fitzgerald believes he has had around 250 fights during his professional career, not to mention the ones he had during his junior career before turning to the paid ranks.
But make no mistake, there is far, far more to Fitzgerald’s game than trying to take down an opponent with his fists.
He is widely respected for his all-round defensive qualities, whether that be blocking shots or laying out an opponent with big, clean, quality hits – things in which he takes equal pride.
“I actually think that people get the definition of what the term ‘enforcer’ means wrong,” said Fitzgerald, ahead of this week’s traditional festive double-header against Steelers’ arch-rivals Nottingham Panthers.
“Some people think he’s a player who is going to fight every game, fight every shift and take up every challenge that comes his way.
“But it’s more about being a guy who is out there to stand up for his team-mates – to protect his team-mates and make space for his team-mates.
Some people love to score a goal and, yes, that is exciting but, for me, a big hit is definitely what I like doing best.Zack Fitzgerald
“If something happens and referees can’t control it then I’m happy to be the first guy in there. I’m happy to be the guy putting myself out there for my team-mates. I don’t necessarily enjoy it, but I like to do that.
“I like to stand up for people, I always have done.”
Drafted as a third-round pick in 2003 by the St Louis Blues, Minnesota-born Fitzgerald went on to play one game in ‘The Show’ that is the NHL, for Vancouver Canucks during the 2007-08 season.
But he arrived in the UK with Braehead back in the summer of 2014 with 450 games behind him in the American Hockey League, North America’s second tier.
This number of appearances alone guarantees automatic respect, while the 1,741 penalty minutes he had accrued during his nine years at that level – playing for the likes of Peoria Rivermen, Charlotte Checkers and Adirondack Phantoms – meant he was also a physical force to be reckoned with.
“Playing physical is something that has always been part of my game,” explained Fitzgerald. “Ever since I learned how to hit, it has been my favourite part of the game.
“Some people love to score a goal and, yes, that is exciting but, for me, a big hit is definitely what I like doing best.
“I kind of developed into that physical role through my junior career and, in a way, it helped me get drafted as it was a big element to my game that teams like to have, especially with a guy who – without wishing to sound arrogant – can play the game well too.”
Whereas Fitzgerald’s physical, aggressive side was put to regular use in the AHL, he believes the quality of his actual game play has improved since moving to these shores.
“You play in the AHL for so many years and you’re being told by your coaches that ‘you’ve got to fight, you’ve got to fight’ and you get to thinking that that is the main part of your game and you kind of get away from the game and playing it well,” he added.
“But here in the Elite League I get a bit more freedom to play the game and Thommo (head coach Paul Thompson) wants me to play the game.
“Yes, the fighting is going to come, but I also take a lot of pride in being a good defenceman, moving the puck quickly up to the forwards, blocking shots and taking my offensive chances when I can.”
Fitzgerald was recently criticised and, in some cases, goaded on social media by some fans for turning down an offer to fight in a recent game against title rivals Cardiff Devils.
But his calm, measured and polite responses showed a man who is content with where his game is at.
“You have to play the situation,” he said. “Desbiens had just fought (Josh) Batch and he got the upper hand ,which is what our team wanted. Then their big tough guy comes and challenges me and, because I turned him down, he starts flailing his arms around in the air and trying to make a scene.
“But, in that particular situation, one, I didn’t need to fight and, two, we only had five defenceman and it just wasn’t the right time because we already had Desbiens sitting in the box from his fight.
“Then afterwards, there were all these ‘keyboard warriors’ telling me I should have fought, I should have done this and saying that I was less of a man or less of a hockey player for not doing so but, at the end of the day, it just wasn’t needed at that particular time.
‘Yes, fighting is part of my job. But I know my job pretty well and I know when I need to fight.”
When asked, the smile that beams out from head coach Thompson’s face shows immediately how much of an impact Fitzgerald has had in his 16 months at the club.
“He is the ultimate team guy and I can’t say enough good things about him,” said the former GB men’s coach.
“He’s been a great signing for this club and he’s a great ambassador for this club, both on and off the ice. He’s a very, very popular man.
“There is so much more to him and his game than that. He’s a top-notch penalty killer. Zack picks up a lot more penalties – more than he should do – but because he has got the name Fitzgerald on his back and I think a lot of 50-50 decisions are more likely to go against him and give him a match penalty because it’s Zack Fitzgerald. So his reputation kind of proceeds him, which is frustrating for us at times.
“But I’ve got a lot of respect for Zack and there’s a lot of respect from the team for Zack because of the role that he has.
“It is a tough role – the toughest job in sport.”