Not a Solo Journey

By Adam Doucette

Zach Solow takes risks. He works hard. He’s not here by accident. 

But, in August of 2014, he wasn’t exactly sure where he was going.

Originally from the west coast of Florida, Solow found himself in the middle of Janesville, Wisconsin.

“I plugged in the address, but the address doesn’t tell you if you’re going to a farm or not. And I remember looking at my phone saying we’re going to be there in two minutes and looking around and not seeing a single building,” he said. 

To say that Solow was not prepared for rural Wisconsin would be an understatement.

“We pulled up to a 500-cow dairy farm,” Solow remembers. “I was wearing peach shorts and a salmon shirt like I was going to the beach, and pulled up to a dairy farm.”

The chippy 5’ 9” forward, now senior captain of Northeastern’s men’s hockey team, has become a fan favorite over his first three years in Boston, endearing himself with those who frequent the DogHouse with his fiery passion and unrelenting energy. But his journey to Matthews Arena started long before he helped bring the Beanpot back to Huntington Avenue – again, and again, and again.

Solow grew up in Naples, Florida as one of four children who all played sports. He has two older sisters – Lindy and Kristen, and one older brother, Max. Lindy was a high school volleyball player, Kristen raced horses through college, and Max played Division I college baseball. His father Ken played college baseball as well, at Arizona State.

Solow will never forget how weekends were for his family when he was little.They would jump into their 2004 Ford Expedition and drive his brother to the baseball field with Kristen’s horses in tow. Then, a three to four hour drive to drop off Kristen and their mother, Nicole, to race the horses. Zach and his father would drive back down so his father could play in his competitive adult league softball game, finish that, pick up his brother, and drive back up to watch his sister race. A full weekend no doubt. 

When the family wasn’t racing around to the kids’ sporting events, they were taking them to see the Florida Everblades, a local professional hockey team.

“The other three kids would be causing chaos, they wouldn’t pay attention,” he said. “I was the only kid that would sit there and not move and just watch the game.”

As Solow grew up and continued going to hockey games with his parents, it became clear that hockey was it for him. He loved watching it, playing it, and most importantly, he was good at it. 

By the time he reached seventh grade, his team was good too. Despite being relatively unknown, his Florida AAA team ended up defeating the St. Louis Blues, the top-ranked team in the country, in the semifinals of a national tournament. Solow had two goals. 

Although his team ended up losing in the championship game, many of the players were hungry for more. After the season was over, seven or eight of the families from the team moved, a lot of them to Michigan or Canada, so their kids could pursue hockey further. However, with three other kids, the Solow family wasn’t exactly in the position to drop everything and move 1,500 miles north. 

Decision time. 

Jeff Brown, the coach for the Blues, whom Solow’s team had just defeated, reached out. He wanted Solow to come to St. Louis. At first, his mom didn’t approve of him leaving home. The crazy weekends of driving, competing, and cheering would be over.

“My dad came into my room and we had a one on one basically just like, is this really what you want to do?” Solow recalled.

It was, and through talking with other hockey families, especially those who had kids playing in St. Louis, the Solows found a family for their son to live with. Jim and Kathy Osbourne lived in the Hazelwood area of Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. They had three kids of their own, one of whom used to play for the Blues himself. They became his first billet family, a term used to describe families who provide a home for kids moving around to play elite hockey.

“She raised me like her own and she was hard on me,” Solow said about Kathy. “She didn’t let me get away with anything and it taught me to basically be a grown-up in eighth grade. She’s a huge part of my success.”

After two years of playing in St. Louis, Solow was ready to make the jump to Janesville, Wisconsin to play for the Janesville Jets of the North American Hockey League. His grandmother flew to St. Louis, rented a car and drove him five hours north.

For a few months, Solow and another hockey player lived with the Funks on that dairy farm, but soon, the other player’s allergies forced him to move. He was Solow’s ride to practice, so they both had to go.

They ended up living with Diane Rundy, a teacher at Janesville High School and a longtime billet, who had a player moving out at the same time Solow needed somewhere to stay.  

He played his whole rookie year of juniors with the Jets and came back for the first 20 games of his second year. It was Christmastime when he got a call from the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL wanting him to come to Dubuque, Iowa to fill one of the spots left by players who left to play in the USA hockey Tournament over Christmas break. He took them up on the offer.

“When I got there and played, I felt really comfortable and played really well. I scored a couple times, and it kind of stuck,” he said of playing for Dubuque. 

Thinking he was returning to Janesville to continue his season, he thanked the coach for his time with Dubuque.

“How would you feel if I told you that I traded for you?,” asked the coach. 

“Well, that would be cool, but I don’t know if it’s the best thing for me,” Solow replied. 

“Too late, I already did it,” was the answer.

It was a two hour drive back to Janesville to pick up his belongings before driving back to Dubuque and moving in with yet another new family. He lived with Jen and Eric Mond for the second half of the USHL season, and moved in with Chris and Joanne Datisman for the next one.

The Datismans had never billeted before, but were longtime fans of the Fighting Saints and decided to give it a go. He lived there for the rest of his time playing for Dubuque and stayed close with them after graduating high school and moving to Boston. 

“He would, to me, be described as one of one of my own kids, because that’s what I felt like when he left here,” Joanne said.

Even having played well the second half of his junior year season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints, Solow still didn’t expect college offers; he had flown under the radar for much of his career. But, his performance with Dubuque in the USHL got the attention of three schools: UMass Amherst, Ohio State, and Northeastern. 

“Northeastern was the first school I visited and as soon as I saw the everyday life that I would have… I canceled my visit to Ohio State,” he said. “I couldn’t picture myself anywhere else, so I didn’t even give the other schools a chance. I’m so happy I made that decision.”

As soon as he laced up his skates for the Huskies, Solow made an impact on the ice. He had three goals and three assists in just his first two games in a Husky uniform. It’s not common that a true freshman makes such an immediate impact.

“Confidence was never a problem just because of that opening weekend,” Solow said. “That’s what a lot of incoming freshmen have to battle for is finding that confidence, and I was just really lucky and kind of pushed that out the door right away.”

Since those first two games, Solow has only grown as a player. Simply being around other great players has helped him continue to improve. Whether it’s Adam Gaudette, Cayden Primeau, Dylan Sikura, or a slew of other accomplished players, Solow has been a willing sponge.

“The one thing I’ve learned from all of them is just work ethic,” he said. “The reason they’re that good is because they’re coming to the rink every day, and they’re separating themselves by not only their skill, but their work.”

The work he has been putting in himself is paying off. In three years at Northeastern, he has three beanpot championships, the longest streak the school has ever had. The Huskies also won the Hockey East Championship in 2019, but did not have the opportunity to defend it in 2020 because of the virus shortened season. 

“Hockey’s important to him,” said Jim Madigan, head coach of the men’s hockey team. “He wants to do well, and he wants our team to do well. So, he does everything within his own abilities to be the best he can be for himself and for our team.”

There is no questioning Solow’s passion for hockey, and it takes up much of his time. But he’s more than just a hockey player. 

“He’s not just here for hockey,” said Madigan. “He’s part of the whole institution… He’s proud to be a Northeastern Husky.” 

Because of Solow’s pride and love for Northeastern, Madigan doesn’t confine him to being an on the ice player.

“I’ve used him in development roles where he’s spoken to our alums and because of his energetic, vibrant, outgoing personality, he’s tremendous in those situations,” Madigan said. “He’s got passion for Northeastern University, overriding passion for the institution, so he’s always someone who’s going to be connected to Northeastern.”

Aside from hockey, Solow also has a growing love of theater and improv. He took a theater class freshman year and has since taken more. 

“It’s just something I really enjoy doing,” he said. “It brings your personality out.”

Another hobby of his?

“I’m big into yoga,” he said. “In the summertime, once we can get back to everything normal, I’ll probably go three times a week.”

Solow finds it helpful for his hockey game as well.

“Hockey is an art and so is yoga,” he said. “So, if you can master the breathing and master the craft of your body, it will translate on your less than half an inch blade.”

Whether it is playing hockey in front of the Husky fans, going to improv events, or speaking with alumni, Solow has made an impact in his first three years at Northeastern.

“If someone could have drawn it up, I don’t think they could have done it any better than what it’s been. Three Beanpots, a Hockey East championship… and the exposure just playing in the Garden. I’ll never forget my times in the Garden. Just when you score a goal, the feeling, it’s incredible.”

Some might get wrapped up in the moment when they have a college athletic career that’s been as successful as Solow’s. But if one thing is for certain, it’s that he has not forgotten where he came from or the people he met along the way. 

“All the credit, and a major part of my success has come from the families that I’ve lived with along the way, and that gets overlooked in hockey,” Solow said. “These families make tons of sacrifices and I’ve lived with six families. They sometimes get under appreciated… The credit goes to everyone involved, not just the player.”

All of the families he’s met on his journey to get here have made an impact on him, but since seventh grade he has never been able to stay in one place too long. It seems safe to say that he has found somewhere he can always call home in Northeastern.