For the last four years, Guelph’s Mike Cazzola has been overseas at this time of year, securing a position on a European hockey team.
Not this year, though, as Cazzola called an end to his time as a professional hockey player.
“For me, I love the game of hockey and I always wanted to use hockey as a way to get further in education,” he said. “People ask me all the time why I went across to Europe as quickly as I did, especially after the success I had in North America. It was strictly because I got accepted into the physiotherapy program. I wanted to use hockey to get me further in my career.”
Cazzola, now 30, has moved into the next phase of his life as he’s joined the Guelph Rehab Centre. He finished his second masters in physiotherapy just before starting the 2020-2021 Alps Hockey League season with S.G. Cortina Hafro of Cortina, Italy.
“I enjoyed every second I played hockey,” he said. “The reason I played it was because I love the game, I love the sport, but you can only play it for so long so you want to set yourself up once your career ends and you're one injury away, one bad season away from losing a contract. I wanted to make sure I had a backup plan.”
After getting 84 points in 77 regular season and playoff games for the Fort Wayne Komets in the ECHL in the 2016-17 season, his first after four years of Canadian university play at Acadia University, Cazzola went overseas to play for the Edinburgh Capitals of Great Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League so he could continue his education at the University of Edinburgh. After a season with the Capitals, he played two seasons with the Fife Flyers of the same league. The Flyers played in Kirkcaldy, basically across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh.
“Both the Edinburgh Capitals and Fife Flyers, they accommodated everything and they were great with the whole process,” Cazzola said. “If I never needed to miss a practice to study for an exam or anything, they were more than accommodating, so I'm grateful for that.
“When you're doing a two-year masters program that was kind of condensed while trying to play professional hockey, it can get busy at times. There's a lot of late nights and a lot of schoolwork being done on the bus rides. Just looking back and reflecting right now, it clearly paid off and I'm grateful that I was able to do that.”
Prior to the start of last season, Cazzola was pretty certain it would be his last. Then he put up his usual big scoring numbers, collecting 67 points in 36 regular season games to finish second in the Alps Hockey League’s scoring race. He also had a total of four points in five playoff games and another 19 points in 13 regular season and playoff games for Cortina. That performance made him think a little bit about maybe continuing his hockey career for another year.
“It definitely crossed my mind, for sure, but when I was getting ready to come back home I reached out to a few people, a few physiotherapists in the area that I know and it just made sense financially, and all my family's here in Guelph,” he said. “It's been nice to be back, set some roots down and spend time with family and friends again. It's been a good change.”
His final season of professional hockey was certainly a different one for Cazzola, thanks to protocols in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was definitely a unique season,” he said. “No fans in the stands. It was very, very similar to when I played high school hockey for Bishop Mac. When you score goals it's just pretty much the team that makes the noise. There's no fans in the stands, but it was a great season. I enjoyed my time in Italy. It was awesome. Obviously with their restrictions I couldn't do much, but I was right up in the mountains and I did get outside going on hikes. Being in the mountains, it was phenomenal.”
Watching physiotherapists work on himself and teammates during his playing days swayed Cazzola toward that profession.
“That's kind of what shone a light on the physiotherapy career for me,” he said. “Luckily, I didn't have any serious injuries, but I had a few minor injuries. I've broken a few bones in my career and I've spent my fair share of time in the physio clinic and seen what they've done and respect what they've done. They helped me improve and get back to playing sport and that's something that now I'm transitioning, kind of getting the full circle. I was the patient and I'm working as physiotherapy resident right now. It's come full circle.”
Having called it a day on his playing career, there are a few memories that stand out for Cazzola.
“Winning an OFSAA with my brother (Geoff) was something very unique and very rewarding that we both from time to time talk about,” he said. “Winning AUS championship at Acadia – I still keep in touch with some of those guys. Anytime you win a championship just brings you that much closer together. When I went to the FISU Games and I played for Canada, we won gold there. Anytime you throw a Team Canada jersey on – you grow up watching the world juniors and then the Olympics. Anytime you can wear a Team Canada jersey it's pretty special.”
Getting an education while playing pro hockey is right up there, too.
“For me I think it's a big accomplishment going over to Europe, playing in the U.K. league while doing a masters degree, balancing both out,” he said. “It wasn't so much of an accomplishment hockey wise, but learning life skills and time management and being able to balance both sport and life at the same time, I thought that that was for me a pretty big accomplishment.”
Now his hockey might be limited to playing a little weekend shinny or games in local beer leagues, although he also hopes to help out in the Guelph Minor Hockey Association.
“I would love to give back to Guelph minor hockey,” Cazzola said. “I spent my whole youth, childhood, growing up playing for Guelph minor hockey so I think it would be important to help give back and get out there and pass my experiences on to some of these kids. It doesn't matter what age they are. Younger or older, I'll do my best to help out whenever I can.”
Now that he has closed the book on his hockey career, he can look back on it with pride.
“You get paid to play a game,” he said. “It's a pretty incredible experience and one that I'll forever be grateful for. I met a lot of friends along the way that I still keep in touch with and that I still make an effort to see once or twice a year.
“It's the little things along the journey – making the friends, making the life-long friendships, enjoying that experience, getting to travel and explore the world with them and then at the end of the day you're going out and you're playing hockey. It was an amazing experience, a chapter that is coming to an end, but something that I'll always be appreciative about.”