How Leduc’s Zalapski, McGill manned same blue line in Hartford

Here's a sneak peek of what to expect from Rogers Hometown Hockey's stop #17 in Leduc, Alberta.

Bob McGill can’t even wager a guess, but let’s put it this way: The odds of finding himself in the situation he did during the last of his 13 years in the National Hockey League were incredibly slim.

As in, you wouldn’t even bother dreaming of it.

You see, McGill, the defenceman turned analyst for Leafs Nation Network, is from Leduc, Alta., the site of this weekend’s Rogers Hometown Hockey stop. Back when he was growing up, it was a town of 2,500 that had graduated just one player to the National Hockey League, ever, in Ray McKay.

Imagine McGill’s surprise, then, when he — Leduc’s second-ever NHLer — got to play on the same team, and man the same blue line, no less, as another kid from Leduc, in Zarley Zalapski, the town’s third-ever NHLer.

“It was pretty cool,” McGill says, today.

Six years older than Zalapski, McGill never played with his fellow defenceman from Leduc (the town is now a city, and home to some 30,000) until they were teammates with the now-relocated Hartford Whalers.

McGill knew about the kid who would become a future NHL star well before that, though. Zalapski’s dad, Len — who named his son after golfer Kermit Zarley — was the star of the local senior men’s team.

“Zarley was the team’s mascot when he was a little kid,” McGill explains. “He was four years old and he had a number on his back — I think it was one half. It was really something. He would come out and skate for warm-up, this little kid, and he could just skate like the wind.”

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While the two future NHLers grew up playing at the same arena (there was just the one in Leduc, then), the pair took very different routes to the pros. McGill went the conventional path, playing three years of junior, including two with the Victoria Cougars. Though, not so conventionally, he dropped the gloves and fought his older brother three times in junior, finishing with a 1-1-1 record — the fans, realizing brothers had just duked it out, “found it pretty comical,” McGill says, with a laugh.

After his first season in Victoria, the Leafs took McGill in the second round of the 1980 NHL draft, and he made his debut with the Maple Leafs the following year.

Zalapski, on the other hand, went the lesser-taken path, suiting up for a season and a half in the Alberta Junior Hockey League before joining Canada’s national-team program at age 17, with an eye on playing at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. The Penguins drafted him fourth overall in 1986 and Zalapski made his debut during the 1987–88 season. His Olympic dream was also realized that year, though the hosts finished off the podium in fourth.

“I remember I was in Leduc in the summertime when he got drafted and talked to him a couple times, but really until he was playing in the NHL, I didn’t see him, and I didn’t really play against him very often,” McGill says. “So to eventually end up on the same team together, spend that time together in Hartford, it was pretty special.”

Zalapski came to Hartford near the end of the 1990–91 season as part of a massive trade that saw future Hall of Famer Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson head to Pittsburgh, where they’d win two Stanley Cups with the Penguins.

It was during the 1993–94 campaign that McGill joined Zalapski with the Whalers. That’s the same year Zalapski was named an all-star, a major highlight of his decade-long NHL career that saw him finish with 384 points (99 goals, 285 assists) in 637 games.

While McGill was close to retirement as a Whaler, Zalapski was just rounding into form, and he’d go on to play in Calgary, Montreal and Philadelphia before retiring at age 41 following a five-year career in Europe.

Zalapski was among the first class inducted into the Leduc Sports Hall of Fame, in 2016. Sadly, he wouldn’t live to see McGill inducted as part of the 2018 class. Zalapski died in 2017 at age 49, due to complications from a viral infection.

“To see him passing away at such a young age was quite a shock,” says McGill. “You think about it, and it’s kind of hard to believe that he’s gone. It’s a real tragedy.”

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McGill still thinks back to that handful of games the two Leduc-born NHLers got to play together, suited up in those green and blue whale-tail jerseys.

“He was a quarterback on the power play and a real skilled guy. He was hitting his stride and really becoming a star-to-be, that next sort of wave of players coming in, and I was kind of at the end of it,” McGill says. “It was fun to watch him because he was really taking off and setting his mark on the type of player he was going to be, while I was just kind of riding it out and hanging on to finish off another year.”

The pair played together for only a couple of months before Zalapski was dealt to Calgary at the trade deadline. McGill says they weren’t a regular pairing, but definitely had a few shifts together in Hartford. Two guys from tiny Leduc, playing together at the highest level.

“Pretty cool,” McGill says. “What are the odds?”

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