There were some tense times during a group call in the Doug and Jennifer Zmolek household in Rochester on Sunday night as the field for the NCAA men's hockey tournament was announced. One of the Zmoleks' sons, Riese, is a senior defenseman and captain for Minnesota State Mankato, a team with a 20-4-1 record that would safely make the field. Another son, Will, a sophomore blue-liner at Bemidji State, had to sweat things out in Bemidji, waiting to hear his school's name.
"We didn't know if the Beavers were going to get in,'' said Doug, a former Gophers standout and North Stars first-round draft pick who played eight seasons in the NHL. "The North Dakota regional came, and they weren't in there, and our hearts just kind of sank. Then the Colorado regional came in, and 'Oh, boy. They're not in.' Then all of a sudden, they popped up. It was pretty cool.''
Will will be joining Riese in the NCAA tournament, with Bemidji State kicking the event off at noon Friday (ESPN2) as the No. 4 seed in the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., against No. 1 seed Wisconsin. Riese will make his third NCAA appearance when No. 2 Minnesota State meets No. 3 Quinnipiac at 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3 stream) in the West Regional in Loveland, Colo.
The milestone moment for the Zmolek comes a year later than they expected. Last year, both the Mavericks and Beavers were safe bets to make the NCAA field, only to have the coronavirus pandemic end their seasons abruptly just before the WCHA tournament semifinals.
"That's maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and it just disappeared,'' Doug said. "It was very exciting news on Sunday.''
Will said "people started stressing out a bit'' as No. 4 seeds were named in Fargo and Loveland. Then, "there was our name, and everyone was pretty pumped up.''
Like their father, both Will, 21, and Riese, 24, are defensive defensemen, as is their 18-year-old brother, Bennett, who's playing for Youngstown of the USHL. Will has three assists in 13 games for the Beavers, while Riese has a goal and 11 assists in 21 contests for the Mavericks. They've ran into each other from time to time on the ice, but "there's never really any trash talk between us,'' Riese said. Added Will, "It's mostly friendly. We don't really get after each other after the game.''
Riese has been a part of a Minnesota State program that has won 112 games and four consecutive WCHA regular-season titles in his four years, and he wants to add NCAA tournament success to that record.
"There's still some goals we want to hit and that we're focused on,'' Riese said. "But during the summertime, it will be cool to look back and see those accomplishments.''
The Zmolek brothers will face formidable offensive players in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Riese and the Mavericks will have to deal with Quinnipiac forward Odeen Tufto, whose 38 assists lead the nation and whose 45 points rank second. Will and the Beavers will go up against the Hobey Baker Award favorite, Wisconsin forward Cole Caufield. The sophomore's 28 goals and 49 points are best in the nation.
"Try not to let him shoot,'' Will said of his team's strategy against Caufield the Badgers. "Try not to give him time and space. If you give that guy time and let him shoot, he'll probably find the back of the net.''
Doug and Jennifer Zmolek plan to attend the West Regional to watch Riese. Should both Minnesota State and the Gophers advance, they'll meet Sunday for a trip to the Frozen Four. If that happens, Doug, who played in three NCAA tournaments, including one Frozen Four, with the Gophers, will show that blood is thicker than water.
"I hope they get there,'' he said, "and I'll be rooting for Mankato. We'll see what happens.''