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Z-Man in the Zone 

by Howie Stalwick & r & Sports fans know it as the Western Hockey League. Medical experts know it as the world's largest test tube of testosterone. Throw a dozen young men onto a frozen sheet of ice, equip them with clubs in their hands and knives on their feet, and rational thought often becomes a serious underdog to raging hormones.


And then there's Sean Zimmerman. Calm, steady, reliable Sean Zimmerman, a rock-solid presence on the Spokane Chiefs' blue line since moving up from the Junior B Spokane Braves for the 2003-04 season.


"Most fans don't appreciate it, because he's a quiet guy," Chief center Derek Ryan says. "He's not going to go out there and make flashy plays or anything like that.


"Coach asks him to go out there and play defense, and he goes out there and gets the job done. He does what the coach asks him to do."


Zimmerman is one of many Chiefs being asked to do lot more after three straight losing seasons. Zimmerman scored just six goals and 24 points in his first two WHL seasons, and new Chief coach Bill Peters says he wants Zimmerman to supplement his outstanding defensive play with more offensive punch.


"I kind of always wanted to do stuff like that, so I'm looking forward to that," the soft-spoken Zimmerman says.


"He's a good position player," says Peters, a one-time Chief assistant coach who returned to Spokane after Al Conroy was jettisoned following a last-place finish. "If you labeled him a defensive defenseman, you'd be right, but we want a little more offense out of him now that he's older."


Spokane's anemic offense was a key factor in Conroy's dismissal. The decline in goal scoring throughout hockey has prompted many leagues, including the WHL, to drop the two-line (offsides) pass this year to try to spread out players and create more offensive opportunities.


"It will actually help [Zimmerman]," Peters says, "because he's a good skater."


"You've got be careful," Zimmerman cautions. "You've got to be more aware of what's going on behind you, especially when you're shorthanded."


Zimmerman has long shown a knack for making adjustments on and off the ice. Many Canadians leave home in their mid-teens to pursue their hockey dreams, but Zimmerman was only 12 when he left his native Littleton, Colo. (with his mother, Mary) to play hockey and attend school at a sports academy in British Columbia.


"When you live in the United States, you never hear about a kid playing pro hockey," Mary Zimmerman says. "They think you're crazy. You've got to compete against Canadian kids. You've got to go where you can talk your dream and live your dream."


Immigration laws prevented Mary from working in Canada, and she says the long separation from husband Rick led to their pending divorce. Still, she says her husband is in agreement that their two children deserve the best in sports, and that's why Michelle Zimmerman is now chasing her Olympic dream as a high school hockey defenseman in Lake Placid, N.Y.


"I never bought the house I could have had ... but whatever happens, happens," says Mary, who works the graveyard shift in a supermarket and lives in a South Hill apartment with Sean. "If the kids don't make it [to the top in sports], we had fun along the way."


Sean and Mary moved to Spokane three years ago when Sean made the Braves, the lone U.S. team in a Junior B league (Kootenay International) that has groomed dozens of future WHL and National Hockey League players. After one season with the Braves, Zimmerman won the Chiefs' Rookie of the Year award in 2003-04, then was selected by New Jersey in the sixth round of the NHL entry draft this year.


Zimmerman, 18, spent part of training camp with New Jersey's minor leaguers ("It was awesome") and picked up a few tips from Devils coach Larry Robinson, a Hall of Fame defenseman. Zimmerman said the learning process continues in Spokane under Peters.


"I've loved him so far," Zimmerman says. "I've learned a lot."


One thing Zimmerman learned long ago is that he'll never be an overly physical defenseman. Though he's 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Zimmerman has never fought in the WHL ("I'm not going to look for it"), and he's collected just 52 penalty minutes in 139 WHL games. More often than not, Zimmerman steers his man out of harm's way without making a bone-crushing hit.


"It's always been that way," Zimmerman says. "I try to do that [rougher] stuff, but when I get in a game, I don't really think about it. It just leaves my mind. I have no idea why."


Last season, Zimmerman had just 36 penalty minutes to go with two goals and 16 points in 71 games. Zimmerman's most impressive statistic was his plus-minus rating -- short version, a player earns a plus if his team scores when he's on the ice and a minus if his team is scored against when he's on the ice -- of plus-4 on a losing club. That ranked second on the team and first among defensemen, one year after Zimmerman's plus-1 tied for third on the team and tied for first among defensemen.


"He's just a steady D man," Ryan says. "He gets the job done. He gets the puck out, and he never gets beat."


The Chiefs, of course, have been getting beat far too often in recent years. Zimmerman says that's about to change.


"We'll have more experience. Last year, our inexperience maybe showed," he says. "This year, we just have a great team. I think we have one of the best teams in the league."





The Spokane Chiefs make their home debut Saturday, Oct. 1, versus arch-rival Tri-City. Both teams are 0-1. Game time is 7 pm at the Spokane Arena. Tickets, priced from $8-$16, may be purchased without a service charge at the Chiefs' office at the Arena or by phoning 535-PUCK. Service charges apply at TicketsWest outlets (800-325-SEAT).

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