Firebirds’ Goaltending Coach Colin Zulianello is All Class  

Posted on

Written by Judd Spicer

An apple a day keeps the goals at bay.

Part educator, part goalie guru, Colin Zulianello has cut a unique career path between two distinctly-different yet still parallel classrooms.

When hired as the Goaltending Coach for the Firebirds (and Developmental Goaltending Coach for the Seattle Kraken) this past fall, Zulianello was already active molding minds in his native Thunder Bay, Ontario in his other job – schoolteacher.

Owning a Masters Degree in Education, Zulianello has long balanced the two trades since concluding his own professional career between the pipes. Following a stellar run in net at Colorado College from 1997-2001, Zulianello endeavored a four-year career in pro hockey, split among seven ECHL stops and time with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons in 2002 and ’03. While a lingering groin injury may have impeded his path to the NHL, Zulianello’s true teacher’s calling never strayed far from the home front.

“My mom was a French and Spanish teacher in high school, so I was around education a lot growing up,” he says.

Not that Mrs. Z played any favorites.

“And I did have my mom as my French teacher in high school,” smiles Zulianello, “and it was the lowest French grade of my life. She held me to a different standard, for sure, and we still joke about that today.”

Of less levity was Zulianello’s own earnest aim to educate others.

From 2010-20, mixed with goalie coaching gigs, Zulianello was a part-time teacher, predominantly working at three different senior elementary schools in Thunder Bay. In between, from 2016-2019, he served as developmental goaltending coach for the Calgary Flames and their former AHL affiliate, the Stockton Heat.

“For me, I started to see a potential path of coaching and teaching, and how I could likely do both,” he continues. “And, at first, I wasn’t sure exactly where it would take me, but I knew I loved working with people and helping them understand things better, to learn a skill set.  It started to click at the end of my playing career that there was something else out here I could do.”

In 2020, prior to his Firebirds hire, he was elevated to a full-time teaching role, with the subjects of Science and Social Science as his teachables and History and Geography also on his syllabus.

One need not stray past the red line to find the parallels in Zulianello’s twin trades.

“In education, a student’s body of work is a reflection of how you taught,” he says. “I don’t look it at as, ‘Johnny did poorly on this assignment.’ I look at is as, ‘What did I do to ensure that Johnny understood, and how can his learning be assessed by way of my teaching.’”

Equal onus on schooling translates directly to Zulianello’s current classroom.

“It’s the same thing in hockey,” says Zulianello. “When I’m going through film and there’s an area of development – and there always is, no matter what level you’re playing at – there’s always something a goalie can do better. Games and practices are a reflection of what we’ve done to prepare the guys for those situations. It’s my job to figure out how we can use preparation time to make sure that when the test comes – and the game is the test – that they’re ready to go.”

A sweet spot for math and scientific study speaks to the coach’s purview, whether he’s working with the Firebirds’ netminders or studying the tendencies of opposing goalies.

“Science, to me, it’s all around us; it’s how the world works,” Zulianello smiles. “Everything around us is controlled by some force, some reaction.  For me, I don’t like not knowing things, and I feel like science can give us a lot of answers. As it relates to goaltending, the position is, in many ways, math and science combined. Goaltending is physics of puck trajectory, it’s angles, it’s geometry, it’s understanding parallel and perpendicular lines.”

Exampling the synergy of class and ice, Zulianello details:

“Maybe we’re playing a team that has a really good east-west power play, where they pass from dot-to-dot, or the top of the ice or middle of the ice to the dot.  Our understanding, based on our position in net, is that we need to rotate parallel to the pass, so that we arrive at the shot release where we’re perpendicular, which means we’re square to the puck.  Whatever the terms we use, there’s some real math behind understanding that.”

Whatever the classroom setting, a scientific study of the rink always proves a useful chalkboard.

“It’s funny when a student asks me, ‘When am I gonna’ use this information in real life?’, Zulianello says. “Well, Thunder Bay is very much a hockey community, so it’s real easy for me to pull up, look up somebody’s Goals Against stats or Save Percentage, talk about what those numbers mean and how we come to those numbers.”   

Zulianello, who also owns and operates Zulie’s Goalie Academy in Thunder Bay, has long worked to develop kinships with those whom he teaches. As the son of an educator, such connections are in the bloodline.

“I feel like both my students and the goalies that I coach understand that I care about them; they know that, for me, it’s genuine, it’s what I’m about. That we’re in it together,” Zulianello concludes. “That’s how the relationships get built; there’s a trust factor there.  So, when I do have to have a difficult conversation with Joey (Daccord) or Gibby (Christopher Gibson), which isn’t often, they know it’s coming from a place where I care about them.”

The 2022/23 Season Schedule