(July 20, 2017)
Utica, N.Y. - New Hartford native and former Utica Comets forward, Mike Zalewski, took a long pause to think about what he wanted to say as he stood in the parking lot of the New Hartford Recreation Center, where he grew up playing ice hockey as a kid, Tuesday.
The question was, "what is your final message to Comets fans who have embraced you over the past three years?"
After a few seconds, the first words out of his mouth were, "Just to say thank you."
It seems like the most obvious answer considering the fact that he had the opportunity to play professional hockey in his hometown, living out a dream in front of the very people he grew up around. But to him, it wasn't that simple.
He continued his message to the fans of the Comets, who have become some of the most loyal and rowdy fans in the AHL over the past four years, telling them what it meant to him to step on the ice, night in and night out with them cheering him on in the stands.
"It's been really special to play here in Utica and wear the Comets jersey," he said. "Being from here and knowing the direction the city is going, and knowing the direction this whole area's going, knowing that the Comets have been a big part of that and that I've been able to be part of that. The support that I've gotten and that the team's gotten, I just want to say thank you to all the fans."
Zalewski signed a deal with the Straubing Tigers of the DEL in Germany on Monday, where he will join his older brother, Steve, who will be heading into his third season with the team.
He said that having his brother there brings more of a comfort factor and will help his transition into life overseas, but also said that it will be really tough to leave a place that he loves, and a team that he loved to play for.
In three seasons with the Comets, the soon-to-be 25-year-old appeared in 167 games, where he scored 24 goals and 39 assists for 63 points. He also tallied 100 penalty minutes and a +21 rating. His best season came in 2015-16 when he scored career highs with 16 goals and 17 assists for 33 points.
This past season, an injury kept him sidelined for a good portion of the year, and when he came back, he said that it was tough for him to find his game again. He felt that he couldn't figure out his place on the team, and that it just didn't click the remainder of the year.
Now, his next challenge awaits in one of Europe's top leagues, and while he's not sure exactly what to expect out there, he said he is excited for the opportunity.
till, as a kid growing up in New Hartford dreaming of playing professional hockey, he pauses again to realize just how lucky he has been to realize that dream, right here, where he spent most of his life preparing for that chance.
"It's been an amazing three years and three that I'll never forget and I just want to say thank you to everyone for their support and their help along the way."
To hear more from Zalewski, check out the full 20-minute interview by clicking here.