The doctor is in
Doctor Z excited to make radio return tonight
Tonight as he settles into the broadcast booth, John Zawacki will go through his usual pre-game routine.
He’ll watch warm-ups to get a sense of which players might see a lot of ice time. He’ll go through the game program to learn the names and numbers of every player, double checking pronunciations and spellings. If all goes well he’ll have every name and number committed to memory by the end of the first period.
He might also take a moment or two to soak in the atmosphere, knowing that he’s back in his element, doing what he loves.
“I’m really excited,” Zawacki said. “I love letting people know what’s going on and painting a picture of what’s going on on the ice or on the field.”
After more than two months Zawacki–better known to his radio listeners as Doctor Z–will make his return to the airwaves when the Alpena High hockey team takes the ice against Traverse City Central.
The last few months have been a rollercoaster for Zawacki, but there’s nowhere he would rather be tonight.
As Alpena’s play-by-play man for football for 10 years and hockey for nine years on 107.7 The Bay, Zawacki’s voice is a familiar one for area listeners, but a recent stroke forced him to work hard to get back to his spot in the booth.
“It’ll be exactly what I was hoping for. I didn’t think I was going to be this quick,” Zawacki said. “But I’m really excited. I love doing it.”
On the night of Nov. 24, Zawacki took to the air with radio partner Randy Hamp to begin another season of Wildcat hockey. Zawacki called an exciting game, which featured four goals from Kyle VanDusen and a hat trick from Colby Plowman as Alpena defeated Grosse Pointe North 8-2.
But in the midst of that excitement, something wasn’t right.
Zawacki hadn’t been feeling well leading up to the game and it became apparent during the broadcast to those listening and those in attendance that he didn’t sound like himself. Several people reached out to Zawacki’s wife Judy during the game to let her know something was up.
Zawacki had some breathing issues and felt out of sync during the game, but he finished the broadcast and told Hamp he would be good to go after getting some sleep.
His friends and family quickly made other plans.
By the time Zawacki got home, he found Hamp in his driveway and was told one way or another he was going to the hospital.
Within 15 minutes of being at the hospital, Zawacki was diagnosed with a heart attack and atrial fibrillation; a rapid heart rate that can cause several heart-related complications. He was eventually taken to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City and had a moderate stroke during a CAT scan.
The stroke affected his left side, including his leg and arm. He spent several days in the ICU to get his breathing patterns back to normal and slowly but surely started to regain some feeling on his left side. One day he was able to move his thumb and index fingers. The next day he could move all his fingers, make a fist and squeeze his left hand. Zawacki spent much of December at Munson and started his physical therapy there, before returning home around Christmas.
Since then he has done physical therapy through MediLodge of Alpena and he currently rehabs at Thunder Bay Therapy.
Zawacki isn’t quite 100 percent yet–in fact he said he’s a solid 65-70 percent–but his steady progress in physical therapy has impressed doctors and therapists and he may improve quicker than expected. Day by day he has regained movement in his affected leg and arm.
“It’s difficult because they push me, which is what I want, but I’m bullheaded,” Zawacki said. “Every day is a little better. I can walk a little bit and I use a walker or a cane at home. Usual recovery for something like this is six months, but they said it might be three to four months before I might be close to 100 percent.”
Returning to radio is a goal Zawacki has been working toward for some time. After his initial prognosis, doctors told him he might be able to return at the start of football season in August. His progression changed that timeline however and he was more determined than ever to get back on the air.
“The better I got and the more I talked to doctors and therapists, they were all ok with it as long as I take extra care,” Zawacki said.
As Alpena’s radio voice for 19 combined seasons, Zawacki hated being away from the rink, but he spoke highly of Tate Precord, who has filled in alongside Hamp on the broadcasts.
“I felt I let a lot of people down, but thank God Tate Precord stepped in and did a great job filling in,” Zawacki said.
Fans tuning in to tonight’s Alpena game will hear a familiar voice on the airwaves and it’s likely that some of them will be just as excited to hear Zawacki back on the air as he is to be covering the game.
“Doc Z is synonymous with the Wildcats. We were all kind of taken aback when this happened, but we’re thankful to see him back and we hope he continues for many more years,” True North Radio Network General Manager Darrel Kelly said.
Zawacki has kept up on the Alpena icers and has gotten to see Alpena in action a little bit. During a game against Sault Ste. Marie just days after his stroke, Zawacki got to see some of the game on his phone and fans sent him well wishes on Facebook Live. Last month, he attended a game and got to see an Alpena win.
The outpouring of support from the community has been a surprise to Zawacki, who has seen a steady stream of visitors since returning to Alpena, not to mention lots of cards and online messages. During his stay in Tendercare, he even received a visit from Alpena football coach Aaron Sims and several players, who presented him with a helmet, a headband and inspirational posters.
While he hasn’t been able to answer all the cards and messages just yet, Zawacki said he’ll be reaching out and thanking many people on the air tonight.
“It’s been unbelievable (from) the whole area, not just people from Alpena,” Zawacki said. “The support of the community helped immensely. It made me want to get back to doing this.”
The hockey team has kept up with Zawacki’s progress as well and the Wildcats are hoping Zawacki can give them a little spark against the Trojans.
“Obviously we’re so happy for him and his family that he’s back doing what he loves and he’s back behind the mic,” Alpena hockey coach Chris Limback said. “I just recognized something was different (during the season opener) and he kept fighting through it. He persevered and we’re excited to have him calling our games.”
James Andersen can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.