Thursday, April 11, 2013

FitzGerald named Man of the Year 4/11


GLENS FALLS – Zack FitzGerald’s on-ice reputation precedes him.

The defenseman-turned-forward is one of the toughest players the American Hockey League has ever seen, and is exactly one fighting major away from earning his 1,500th career penalty minute.

When he signed with the Adirondack Phantoms over the summer, the eighth-year pro joked he almost needed to take out a public service announcement to apologize to any fans he may have “disrespected” when he came to the Civic Center as a rival. Antagonizing their team was his job.

FitzGerald never took out that advertisement, but he still won over the fans in record fashion.

They began to embrace FitzGerald before he even donned a Phantoms jersey for the first time, starting a “Free Fitzy” movement to encourage coach Terry Murray to put him in the line-up as he sat out as a healthy scratch. When he finally played, fans made him T-shirts and two mammoth signs that both spanned several panes of Plexiglas as the Phantoms took the ice for warm-ups.

And FitzGerald embraced them, appearing at radio shows, schools and youth hockey practices. He was one of the more popular players for fans to meet in post-game skates and autograph sessions, and he scribbled his name and number on more items than he can possibly remember.

It never got old, and it never will.

FitzGerald on Thursday was named the Adirondack Phantoms’ Man of the Year, which honors his contributions to charitable organizations and the Glens Falls community. He is now one of 30 finalists for the AHL’s Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, which is presented to the league’s Man of the Year.

“It definitely doesn’t hurt to be recognized,” FitzGerald said. “That’s not what it’s all about, but of course when you get praise for something it always feels good. In the end, it’s all about the fans. Really, it’s about the kids. It’s about the community. I think this is a great hockey town. I hated coming here, playing against this team. Now I love playing for them. It’s been great.”

It is the first such honor in FitzGerald’s career, though he has always felt a strong connection to the fans. He has been in their shoes before, back in his home of Two Harbors, Minn. He was six years old when his older brother, Rusty, began playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

“I’d go to the games,” he said. “I’d wait for the sticks, the autographs. I know what it’s like to be there and I know what it’s like to get reaction from players and stuff. Why wouldn’t I? It’s part of the game. If a kid is yelling your name and you don’t have time for him, then I have a problem.”

His persona as a player is rooted in part in an experience he had when he was younger – probably about 11, he figures. Hall of Fame winger Brett Hull, who played his college hockey in Duluth, held a golf tournament there, and Wayne Gretzky was one of the participants. FitzGerald went.

“We watched (Gretzky) tee off and I had a broken arm at the time. He came up to me and asked me what it was,” FitzGerald said. “I told him it was a hockey injury. He was really nice and signed it for me and wished me luck and everything. That could have been it right there. … Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player in the world, just came up to me and asked how my arm was.”

FitzGerald, throughout his career, has been like that. Via Facebook and Twitter, he keeps in touch with fans he has met in cities from Winnipeg to Charlotte to Albany. It was a fan in the latter city who is credited with starting the “Free Fitzy” movement with a sign bearing that text. She brought it to an early Phantoms game in Albany after FitzGerald had sat out Adirondack’s first five games.

Mind you, FitzGerald being in the line-up would have probably brought pain to her own team.

It evolved into a Twitter hashtag, #freefitzy, and then another #fitzyfreed, when FitzGerald made his season debut the following night. Fans have presented him with T-shirts with both messages.

“That picked up quick,” FitzGerald said of the movement. “It spread like wildfire. I couldn’t believe it. … They’re not even here and they still want me to play. That’s love and I appreciate that.”

The Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, however, is not exclusively presented based off fan reaction.

Reigning winner Nick Petrecki, a Clifton Park native who plays for the Worcester Sharks, was honored for his role in that team’s reading and fitness programs, as well as a holiday toy drive.

FitzGerald has done his part for charity. In post-game jersey auctions for causes like cancer research and homeless teenagers, it has not been rare for him to take the microphone away from the emcee and auction off his own uniform in an attempt to drive up the dollar amount. He has also volunteered his own time after team practices for one-on-one hockey clinics with children.

Knowing all that, it is no surprise that he has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity in Glens Falls.

In one post-game autograph session, FitzGerald was stationed along the left-wing boards. The line of fans waiting to meet him, at its peak, stretched across the ice to the right-wing face-off dot.

At some point this season, one Phantoms fan asked FitzGerald to sign a portion her skin. He obliged. She then went to a tattoo parlor and had the artist turn the signature into a tattoo.

“I thought that was pretty epic,” FitzGerald said. “I love tattoos. That’s a commitment right there.”

These are the same fans that used to boo him, and cheer when Phantoms punched him in the face.

“Everything just happened so fast,” FitzGerald said Thursday. “Everybody embraced me really quick, and I appreciate that because for a player like myself, I’ve been moving around a bit. It’s been hard to find a home. When people make it feel like home, it’s that much more comfortable and exciting. It makes you want to play for the team and the organization that much more.”

So much so, in fact, that FitzGerald said he is interested in re-signing with the Phantoms, even though he has been a healthy scratch in 37 of the team’s 70 games. That is four more than he had missed in the past four seasons combined. When he has played, it has seldom been at his natural position.

But he has been lauded for his unbridled positivity, and being a vocal leader in the locker room. He has never publicly complained about the role he plays on the team, or his lack of playing time.

That is just not who he is.

“It’s out of my hands,” FitzGerald said of the notion of returning. “But as far as I’m concerned I want to come back.”

Adirondack Phantoms Man of the Year winners
2013: Zack FitzGerald
2012: Cullen Eddy
2011: J.P. Testwuide
2010: Logan Stephenson


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