Hockey once beckoned Zak Zaremba away from Saint Ignatius, but now the sport has called him home.
Zak Zaremba has joined the Saint Ignatius hockey coaching staff as a Skills Coordinator and Director of Player Development.
"I'm excited to come back to Cleveland and Saint Ignatius after a decade away," Zaremba said. "Coaching hockey at Ignatius will be great. It's a sport that I love, at a place I love, where I developed myself."
Zaremba's addition further bolsters a strong coaching staff. Zaremba will help to continue the program's mission of forming Men for Others while helping young players launch hockey careers.
Zaremba first stepped onto West 30th and Lorain in the fall of 2005 as a freshman. From the moment he stepped onto the ice, his talent and potential stood out.
The Parma native made the varsity team as a freshman. Head Coach Pat O'Rourke '90 was in just his second season as the leader of the Ice Cats, beginning to build the start of a powerhouse program.
But the 2005-06 campaign was very much a rebuilding year. The Wildcats finished the season with a 7-25 record, a tough year for the blue and gold. O'Rourke has since constructed a perennial title contender, never again experiencing a losing season, with 22+ wins in each of the 16 seasons since. But at the time, the program was in a different place.
Realizing Zaremba's superior talent that could lead him to the Division I or Junior ranks, O'Rourke gave his blessing for Zaremba to play junior hockey elsewhere.
"Zak was a very promising player and a prolific offensive talent who had a nice season for us. At that time, we didn't have the mechanisms in place to advance the career of such a player, so Zak needed to leave our program in order to achieve his dreams, which he did with our blessing and sincere good wishes," O'Rourke explains. "Luckily, in the years since, we've developed the relationships and know-how to get guys like Zak to juniors and college hockey. But back then, we didn't have it and we had to be honest with ourselves about things. While we were sad to see Zak go, we also wished him the best of luck and followed his career closely."
Zaremba continued to attend Saint Ignatius as a sophomore and junior, playing for the now-defunct Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks under renowned coach Bob Jacobson.
During his time at Wildcat High, Zaremba learned plenty of important lessons. Service still stands out in his mind as a pillar of his character that was formed, in part, at Saint Ignatius.
"Playing for Coach O'Rourke, he was altruistic. He was always out for your best interests and developing you not only as a player, but a person. The mission of the school is to develop kids into leaders and men," Zaremba says. "Part of that mission is giving back. I still remember Sophomore Service. I worked at the Cleveland Food Bank, and that stayed with me. It was an introduction into volunteering and giving back."
After his junior year, Zaremba answered the door as opportunity knocked, moving to Youngstown to play for the Mahoning Valley Phantoms. Following a year in Youngstown, Zaremba played for the Brockville Braves of the Central Junior Hockey League (CJHL), serving as an alternate captain and assisting the team to a Fred Page Cup Championship and national semi-finals tournament appearance. Zaremba's skills as a forward stuck out, as he was selected to the 2010-11 CJHL All-Star Game.
His success in the CJHL opened the door for him to play at the Division I level and enjoy a world-class education.
So when Army West Point came offering a scholarship, it was a no brainer for Zaremba. After all, he comes from a distinguished military family.
"My family has a long history of military men. My dad served in Air Force, my paternal grandfather was in Army, and my maternal grandfather was in the Navy," Zaremba says. "It was an awesome opportunity, a combination of everything I was looking for: academics, hockey, and giving back to the nation. I enjoyed my time there – it was everything I wanted and more."
O'Rourke recognized early that Zaremba had the chops to make it.
"Though he was naturally talented, Zak was also humble and hard-working, two of the core values of our program," O'Rourke says. "So we had an idea he might be the total package and the kind of kid who could make it all the way to D1."
Zaremba played a fast, physical brand of hockey that worked well for the Black Knights. Zaremba's mix of speed and athleticism and toughness in the corners allowed him to make plays and skate around opposing players.
In 136 games over four seasons with Army West Point, the ironman forward tallied 21 goals and 20 points for a total of 41 points. Listed as 6'1, 195 pounds, Zaremba played well and made a nice impact on the ice for the Black Knights.
But his more important work occurred off the ice for Army.
After graduating from Army West Point in 2015, he spent six months in basic officer training in Missouri. He was commissioned as an Engineer Officer, and was stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he would spend the next five years.
From December 2015 through September 2018, Zaremba served in platoon leader and executive officer roles. During this time, he managed all administrative, maintenance, logistical, and training functions of a combat engineer unit consisting of 103 personnel and $20 million worth of military equipment. Notably, Zaremba twice ensured the unit was prepared to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice as part of the Army’s Global Response Force mission.
His next job was as Rear Detachment Commander, from September 2018 through October 2019. During these 14 months, Zaremba was responsible for communication and care of troops deployed or returning from Kandahar, Afghanistan. His role involved equipment transactions in the continental US, and ensuring soldiers’ families were able to receive up-to-date information and any assistance needed while their loved ones were away.
His final role was as an Engineer Staff Officer. In this role, Zaremba was assigned as an administrative assistant to the battalion’s senior officer. He was charged with overseeing community support systems, while serving as staff advisor to the command group of a 1,000-soldier engineer unit. Essentially, Zaremba helped to provide community support services to soldiers, family, and civilian employees in the Fort Knox area.
Zaremba and his wife are now preparing to move back home to Cleveland. His wife will be completing a fellowship in pediatric hospital medicine at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, and Zaremba is set to work for Amazon in operations.
When the opportunity to return home and coach at Saint Ignatius, Zaremba leaped at the chance.
"I was fortunate to have great mentors, from Pat and Bob Jacobson and beyond, to my coaches at West Point. They were great coaches who kept me accountable and helped me fulfil my potential," Zaremba says. "Guys older than me also helped to give me perspective. So, it's fitting for me to come back to Cleveland to provide knowledge and assistance next generation."
O'Rourke is excited to have him on staff. Zaremba joins assistant coaches Bryan Schoenholz, Rob Gramc, as well as recent alumni Brian Holz '07 and goalie coach Ed Zdolshek '09.
"Whenever we have a player in our program like Zak, we note in our files that he might make a good coach someday should he get the 'coaching bug' in his heart," O'Rourke says. "We also have Brian Holz in the fold and our goalie coach, Ed Zdolshek, who is one of the best in the business. All of those guys are players who earned our respect as players and were guys we hoped might someday come back and help further the success of the program. We are blessed to have all 3 on the varsity staff now."
Zaremba's role will be varied with the Wildcats.
His responsibilities are split into two parts – Skills Coordinator and Director of Player Development. As Skills Coordinator, he'll teach the Wildcats the finer points of offense, particularly for forwards. As Director of Player Development, he'll mentor young men who hope to continue their careers at the next level.
"Not only can he help our guys with their shooting, passing, and skating, he can also let them know what it takes to succeed on the path to D1 hockey – the on-ice stuff to be sure, but also how to handle the mental part of it – the long bus rides, the billeting with families, working hard in the weight room, staying out of trouble, taking a few classes here and there, and so on," O'Rourke explains. "Between Zak and Ed (who played D3 hockey at Nazareth), we now have a wealth of college experience on our bench and in our locker room, which is huge. More and more of our players want to go the junior/college route, so this is a real blessing and should be a great boon to the program for years to come. We are so excited to welcome Zak to our staff."
Zaremba will bring plenty of perspective for the young men in the Saint Ignatius hockey program.
With the talent level only getting better, having Zaremba on board to counsel Wildcats with high hockey ambitions will be great. If you're a youth hockey player in Cleveland who wants to reach for high goals of playing Juniors, Division I, or the NHL, Saint Ignatius is the place for you.
"I've been watching the progress of the program from afar, watching Ignatius develop players who are playing Division I or in juniors. For guys who want to play juniors or college, I can bring my perspective and experience to Ignatius guys," Zaremba says. "Playing in Cleveland when you have a little skill, you think you're good. And then the lens gets wider and wider, and you see there's a lot of good players out there. So, you determine goals. Playing pro hockey is very difficult to do. But you can use hockey as a vehicle for education and professional opportunities. I was around great people and future leaders at Army while getting a great education. I did that by playing hockey. I hope to make that experience possible for Ignatius players."