Photo by Zach Heffner/Verdict Photography
Jeff Zywicki spends his winters in California and his summers in Canada and, wherever he is, he always seems to have a lacrosse stick in his hands.
``It’s a sport that I love,’’ he says ``It gives me a lot.
``I give thanks every day that I can put a lacrosse stick in my hands.’’
Zywicki, 27, who is in his fourth year with the Stealth, is that most precious of National Lacrosse League talents. He’s a money-in-the-bank finisher, as he displayed in scoring five goals in San Jose’s first win of 2009, a 16-6 tromping of the Rochester Knighthawks.
He finished last season with 48 goals, which was surpassed only by Philadelphia’s Athan Iannucci, who set an NLL record with 71 to gain MVP honours.
Zywicki was an all-pro selection and an all-star game starter last year. Coming into this season, he had scored 115 goals in 46 regular-season games in his first three years in the NLL, piling up sufficient credentials to warrant Inside Lacrosse magazine to place him No. 5 on its list of the top 50 players in the sport’s best league in the world.
``That was pretty cool,’’ he says.
All sports were pretty cool in his eyes growing up in Nepean just outside Canada’s capital city of Ottawa. He starting playing lacrosse when he was seven. His dad, Eugene, had played lacrosse and introduced it to him, and coached him, too. When Jeff was 14, he participated in a clinic in which Buffalo Bandits star John Tavares was an instructor. The NLL’s all-time leading scorer made an impression on him, inspiring Jeff to get better every day.
Zywicki also played hockey and he was an outstanding high school football running back and kick returner.
``I liked all kinds of sports but the ones where there was physical contact were the ones I liked most,’’ he recalls.
He played hockey till he was 18. After that, it was all lacrosse.
``I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the NHL so I focused on lacrosse,’’ he explains.
He added the intercollegiate field variety to his repertoire at the University of Massachusetts.
Getting drafted by the Stealth expanded his personal universe by giving him the opportunity to spend his winters in California, where the weather is considerably milder than it is in the Ottawa region where daytime temperatures can dip to 0 Fahrenheit during January and February.
``It’s good,’’ he says of the California lifestyle he’s grown to love. ``Growing up in Ottawa, our winters were pretty severe _ long with a lot of snow. Coming out here in January and missing the winter up there is great. By mid-February it’s warm enough to wear shorts and sit by the pool.’’
Last summer, he commuted from the Ottawa region to Rochester, N.Y., hooked up with Stealth teammate Colin Doyle, and helped the Rattlers win the outdoor pro field championship.
Zywicki gets around. He and Doyle and teammate Eric Martin flew to Hawaii for an exhibition tournament last October.
``It’s awesome,’’ Zywicki says of the annual trip into the Pacific.
He hopes to play for Canada at the world field lacrosse championships in Manchester, England, in 2010. Tryouts will take place this summer. He’s been one of Canada’s biggest stars in recent tournaments. Zywicki scored a tournament-high 28 goals in eight games in helping Canada win the world field title in 2006 in London, Ontario. Back in an arena, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2007, his goal 28 seconds into overtime gave Canada a win over the Iroquois Nationals in the 2007 world indoor championship final.
But all his thoughts centre on the Stealth now.
``We’re good,’’ he says without hesitation. ``We had a bit of a rocky start but we’re a young team. There’ll be some growing pains. We’ve got that to deal with but there’s talent and everybody wants to win. We’ve just got to continue to improve and we should be alright.’’
Zywicki couldn’t be in a better situation to succeed in that he gets to go for goals with former league MVP and scoring champion Doyle, who was No. 1 in the Inside Lacrosse top-50 analysis.
``Playing with him has been awesome,’’ says Zywicki. ``My production has gone up every year. He’s taken on a new role now. He’s more of a set-up guy and a playmaker than a finisher. It’s helped me a lot. Me being a finisher first, it works between the two of us. It makes me better and our whole team better. Everybody on our team likes to be on the floor with him because he’s such a great feeder. He’s a great captain.’’
It’s often said that certain athletes have great hands and that is why they are such prolific scorers. They execute quickly and have great finesse. Zywicki excels in lacrosse because he’s one of those special athletes with great hands. He’s also a muscular 5-9 and 190 pounds, making him difficult to topple.
He hopes to play until at least the age of 35. He’ll be around longer than that if he avoids serious injuries.
``John Tavares is 40 and still playing. I don’t know if I can play that long but we’ll see. Beyond that, I’d like to stay in lacrosse _ coaching and running camps. I’d like to get into coaching eventually.’’
That’s a long ways off. There is a lot of lacrosse to play yet. A lot of passes from Doyle to Zywicki, and the ball is in the net!