by Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat
As he set foot in Providence onto the campus of Brown University in 2008, current Springfield Thunderbirds forward Bobby Farnham was following a path already rife with footsteps in his family’s legacy.
A New England native from the Boston suburb of North Andover, Mass., Farnham was following the path of his father, Bobby, Sr., who parlayed a career at Brown as a football star at the wide receiver position in the 70s.
In total, four Farnhams laced up the football cleats for the Bears before the younger Bobby traded spikes for skates.
As Farnham began the time-honored life milestone of unloading his belongings into his first college dorm, the then-19-year-old freshman –- never naive to his surroundings -– turned to see a sophomore teammate, as yet unknown, approaching. Similar in size and build, one feature in his future teammate stood out to Farnham: a peculiar squinting expression.
“My first thought was, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? Why is he squinting?’” Farnham recalled with a hearty chuckle.
It would not take long for Farnham to strike up what would become a lifelong friendship with the squinter, Harry Zolnierczyk -– who, in turn, would become Farnham’s freshman-year roommate on road trips.
For Zolnierczyk, a Toronto native who played in the British Columbia Hockey League in Canada’s Junior A circuit before arriving at Brown, his first impression of the man he calls “Bob” came into focus quickly.
“To me, Bob’s one of the guys you want to be around -– everyone does, to be honest,” Zolnierczyk said. “The guys at Brown, the guys here (in Springfield) do. There’s always something exciting going on with him.”
Following each of their collegiate careers at Brown, completed 12 months apart, Zolnierczyk’s and Farnham’s pro careers saw them as rivals. Zolnierczyk had signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Flyers while Farnham signed with the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Penguins. And while the respect for one another and fierce competitiveness never wavered, the hijinks always remained a link between the two friends -– Zolnierczyk once stealthily stole and carried one of Farnham’s gloves the length of the ice during a media timeout in an AHL game, with Farnham’s own parents there to corroborate the events.
Though the two did previously skate together in Wilkes-Barre as recently as 2014, Farnham made sure to satirically express his due credit for “recruiting” Zolnierczyk to sign with Springfield last offseason, while also emphasizing his claim as the driving force behind Zolnierczyk’s first career 50-point season.
Even as veterans, it is clear that Zolnierczyk and Farnham are, at the very least, reluctant to take themselves seriously.
“We enjoy bringing the laughter and the fun side of the game to the rink every day,” said Zolnierczyk. “It can be tough when there are ups and (especially) downs in a season, but we always look to make sure the guys are in good spirits.”
But what is there to do when there is no hockey? A typical day of work for an AHL player (outside of game days) is made up of morning practice, workouts, and meetings. The norm, rather than the exception, is to have the entire afternoon and evening with an open planner.
Perhaps it is how Farnham and Zolnierczyk fill their calendars that might just showcase an even more praiseworthy attribute that defines the duo: the ability to be “people” persons. Even as Zolnierczyk is in the midst of raising a baby boy with his wife, Julianne, he and Farnham remain steadfast in their longings to leave lasting impressions on all who enter their lives.
Zolnierczyk credits current Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach Jim Hiller, his former head coach in his teenage years with the BCHL’s Alberni Valley Bulldogs, with imparting a wise, lifelong lesson.
“(Jim) pointed out the importance of including everyone. You never know who’s going to have to step up and say something about you -– to vouch for you at another time in your career,” Zolnierczyk recounted vividly. “From the rink guys to the front office staff to the Zamboni driver, that always sits with me when you go into a new place and meet the people behind the scenes.”
“You take pride in (meeting and engaging with people), and we try to teach to young guys, too – to make sure you know everybody’s name that you are around,” Farnham interjected.
“It’s part of our personality to go out of our way because we want to make those people feel included. It adds another bit of positivity, and it’s nice to be able to walk into a place and instead of walking by someone, you can say ‘hey’ and have a good exchange. That’s just the type of people we are,” Zolnierczyk concluded.
This past fall, making good on their commitment outside the arena, the pair sought out and established a meaningful relationship with the founders of Griffin’s Friends, a Springfield-based charity whose mission is to bring moments of joy to courageous kids, especially those whose families have been affected by cancer.
With no spotlight or Thunderbirds identification, Farnham and Zolnierczyk paid a visit to the Griffin’s Friends kickoff party at a time when rest and relaxation would have been acceptable. The kids and their families later had a chance to return the favor with a visit to the two Thunderbirds stars, in their home, complete with a locker room tour.
“As pros, when you have free time, you want to be involved in your community. You’re never going to be this ‘cool’ again, where kids are pumped to see you,” Farnham said. “We understand that there’s a finite timeline to this career.”
For Zolnierczyk, one recent encounter following yet another voluntary visit –- this one to the West Springfield Boys & Girls Club –- provided credence to the lasting impact that can come from something so seemingly small.
“As we were leaving (the BGC), there was a kid coming in with his parents and his sister,” Zolnierczyk recalled. “He was not involved in our appearance, but was there for flag football, and his mother told us how he’s a huge (Thunderbirds) fan, saying ‘Oh my God, he loves you guys.’ And he goes into shock, and he started to cry, but they were tears of joy.
“You look at that kid -– and you didn’t even do anything other than him being able to see you –- but after signing autographs and taking a picture, you realize you don’t get that feeling anywhere else. You don’t realize how special you are to someone until you actually go and experience it. It brings a smile to these kids’ faces and probably means something deeper than we can even imagine.”
Whether they want to admit to realizing it or not, Zolnierczyk and Farnham have cemented their legacy in Springfield as not only two of their city’s favorite hockey players, but maybe more rewardingly, two of their city’s favorite people.
As a result of his continued service to the Pioneer Valley, Farnham has been named the Thunderbirds’ 2018-19 IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year, while Zolnierczyk will be honored at the end of the T-Birds season with the club’s Good Guy award, but he will not be accepting alone -– both Zolnierczyk and Farnham will share this year’s team award.