Wiese makes Grizzlies history, commits to play Division I college hockey for University of Minnesota
Zach Wiese carried on the Rochester Grizzlies' tradition of strong goaltending in the 2021-22 season, leading the franchise to its first-ever Fraser Cup championship, as postseason champions of the North American 3 Hockey League. Now he's made more franchise history, becoming the first Grizzlies player to commit to a Division I college. And it's not just any D1 program. It's the home-state University of Minnesota.
ROCHESTER — Two years ago, Chris Ratzloff was convinced that Zach Wiese could become a top goalie in the North American 3 Hockey League.
Ratzloff, the head coach of the Rochester Grizzlies, saw flashes of that potential when Wiese played high school hockey in Owatonna. Ratzloff thought Wiese — a former standout offensive lineman for the powerhouse Owatonna football program — could transform his body with some hockey-specific training, and transform his game into one of the best in the league.
Ratzloff was correct about that, as Wiese became the NA3HL Goalie of the Year this past season, when he led the Grizzlies to their first-ever national championship. He backstopped them to the Fraser Cup championship with a 4-0 victory against the Granite City Lumberjacks (St. Cloud) on March 27 in St. Peters, Mo.
But even Ratzloff didn't see this bit of Grizzlies history coming: Wiese has become the first player in franchise history to commit to a Division I college hockey program. And it’s not just any program.
The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Wiese made the announcement official today, when he committed to the University of Minnesota, coached by Austin native Bob Motzko.
"It's crazy; I never thought this would happen to me," Wiese said Tuesday evening after making the announcement official. "It's been a roller coaster. When (the possibility) was brought to my attention, it was like 'yeah, sure, it would be cool.' But you're thinking it's probably not going to happen."
Then it did. Wiese went on an official visit to the U of M campus last month, toured the hockey facilities and talked with the Gophers coaching staff.
"I can't even explain how this feels," Wiese said with a laugh, minutes after posting his news on social media. "My phone has been blowing up."
Wiese is expected to be one of three goalies on the Gophers’ roster.
“He came in here (two years ago) and was still in football shape, a little overweight for hockey,” Ratzloff said. “To see how hard he worked for us that first summer, then came in and played really well when he had his chances.
“He tendered with Amarillo (in the NAHL), they cut him in camp and he wasn’t even sure he wanted to play hockey anymore. We had a good talk with Zach and (his dad) Marc and it was ‘what’s your dream? Do you still want to play hockey?’ And he did. He came back here and was the guy for us this year.”
Wiese is the third southern Minnesota goalie in just more than 10 years to join the Gophers, following in the skates of former Rochester Century standouts Alex Kangas (2007-11) and Brock Kautz (2015-19). Former Dodge County standout Brody Lamb, a goal-scoring forward, recently signed his National Letter of Intent to join the Gophers this fall, as well.
The move from Tier III junior hockey to a Division I college program is one that very few players make.
According to NA3HL records, just five players who are NA3HL alumni committed to NCAA Division I programs this season. Albert Lea native Campbell Cichosz is one of those. The hard-nosed defenseman played this season for the Anchorage Wolverines in the NAHL, a team coached by Rochester native and former Grizzlies assistant coach Mike Aikens. Cichosz has committed to Minnesota State University, Mankato; he’ll join the Mavericks this fall.
Wiese, meanwhile, was outstanding for two seasons for Rochester. He played most of his first season (2020-21) behind veteran Shane Soderwall — who won the NA3HL Goalie of the Year award in 2021, after backstopping Rochester to the national championship game — compiling a 13-3-0 record, a 1.83 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
"It's crazy to get this opportunity," Wiese said. "Nothing's done yet, though. I have to keep working."
He blossomed in 2021-22 as the full-time starter, going 27-4-1 overall (regular and postseason combined), with a 1.75 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. He stopped 208 out of 224 shots faced in nine games in the 2022 NA3HL playoffs, as Rochester went 7-2 in those games.
“It was great to watch Zach grow and become an even better goalie than he was last year,” Grizzlies captain Cole Gibson said after the season. “It was great to see him get that opportunity in the (NAHL). It was very well deserved.
“Then down the stretch and into the Fraser Cup, he was phenomenal for us. We hung him out to dry at times, but we always knew he’d do his job, and we’d try to play for him. He’s an awesome guy on and off the ice, one of the leaders of our team. If he said something, guys would listen.”
Wiese recorded four shutouts — including one in the national championship game, when he turned aside all 29 shots he saw.
“It took us a little bit to get jelled together this year,” Wiese said after the season. “I knew we wouldn’t be ready right at the start of the year, we wouldn’t be ready for the speed of the game and everything. But I knew if I played my game, they’d get used to that speed and by the end of the year we were scoring 5 goals a game.
“It’s pretty easy to win (as a goalie) when your team does that.”
Wiese earned his first-ever callup to the NAHL, when the Austin Bruins called him up for close to a month in mid-January. He played in one game, a 5-4 loss at St. Cloud on Jan. 15, a game in which St. Cloud scored three power-play goals.
The Gophers had three goaltenders on their roster at the end of last season: starter Justen Close, a junior last season, and freshmen Owen Bartoszkiewicz and Brennan Boynton. Close is the only one of those three who saw playing time last season; he took over as the Gophers’ go-to guy after Jack LaFontaine departed the team midway through the season to sign with the Carolina Hurricanes organization.
Minnesota was 26-13-0 in 2021-22 and reached the NCAA Frozen Four. It lost to in-state rival Minnesota State University, Mankato, 5-1 in the national semifinals. Wiese will now be part of that program and that group of goalies that hopes to help the Gophers return to the Frozen Four.
“I think our model here is working and paying off for guys,” Ratzloff said. “Guys are here for the right reasons and they’re using the tools we have to help them in the right ways. They’re taking advantage of the opportunities they have here.
“Hopefully we continue to see guys make jumps to college. We not see one THIS big again, but people are watching us and that’s a good thing.”