The Lindenwood University Lions men’s hockey team has a history of success in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division 1 National Championship, having won three titles and been runner up three times since 2007-2008.
The Lions are off to another great start in 2018-19. With a 12-0-0 record, they have topped the ACHA rankings for the second week in a row. A conversation with head coach and former NHL defenseman Rick Zombo offers clear insight into the success of the Lions program on and off the ice.
Zombo has been head coach of the Lions since 2010, and spent 12 seasons in the NHL playing for the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins.
“We have full support from the university and it’s all about winning the final game of the season,” began Zombo. “Whether it’s practice in October or practice in February, it’s all about growth and getting better and every day we talk about ‘we.’
“We make it really clear in the recruiting process that we get better. There are a lot of talented players out there but they have to be willing to sacrifice potentially their points for the cost of ‘we.’ We talk about what is necessary and counting on the guy next to you.”
The veteran coach is more than willing to set expectations for his team that will teach lessons that carry beyond the ice and, even further, beyond their competitive playing days.
“At Lindenwood we earn our wins. We schedule the best teams, we practice every day, and we don’t let a minute slip by without growth. It’s part of the recruiting."
Zombo has built a network for recruiting his players and he identifies a strong staff associated with the program as critical to the Lions’ success.
“I encircle myself with brilliant people that challenge me. For me to ask my players to compete against each other in practice, I need to be challenged too. You can’t just lead from the front if you are not willing to do the work yourself. Everything about it is fantastic,” declared Zombo.
Having a clear purpose and setting the path to achieving that purpose is also part of the Lindenwood team process as described by Zombo.
“We follow schedules. A schedule gives us direction to our purpose. That is how you start your day out and that purpose is so important it has got to burn. I challenge and make suggestions [to the players] and reinforce what their responsibilities are and how we depend on everybody else.
“Any competitive athlete is not a competitive athlete if you are not striving to be the best. Everybody wants to win the championship. It’s an environment and pedigree that is so important they have to be challenged."
Zombo has his players’ post collegiate days top of mind when he discusses a player’s time at Lindenwood.
“[Having a learning experience beyond hockey is] everything. When you are in a group environment, it teaches you what happens when you are in the real life. After the B.A. you’re looking for J-O-B and now you have responsibilities. That is what you learn when people are counting on you.”
Players, coaches, teachers and others often banter about accountability, but as a Lion, Zombo demands more than just talk about being accountable.
“We define the words and we live them. It’s a walk that we walk every day and I make certain that I am living it too.”
Beyond the demands he puts on himself to model behavior he desires of his players, Zombo is an ice rink manager working on growing the game and his players have been involved in that work as well.
“Every year we want at least 150 kids in initiation, learn-to-play and cross-ice. It is more moving to me to have my [Lindenwood] kids assist me on the ice; it is a wonderful situation. That is what my program is all about. It is such a wonderful game.”