TUCSON, Ariz. — Zbynek Michalek was set to return to the Tucson Roadrunners’ lineup on Saturday after missing the past four weeks with an upper-body injury. Michalek is happy to be healthy, but it’s not the return he wants most. He’d rather be returning to Gila River Arena as a member of the Arizona Coyotes.
“It’s not the way I wanted to finish a career by playing in the American Hockey League,” Michalek said Friday after practice at the Tucson Convention Center. “But saying that, I still have a contract and I still feel like I want to play and can play. This is not ideal and it’s a tough situation for me personally, but I’m trying to be as professional as I can and help the young guys out and do my best to stay in shape because you never know what can happen. There’s always the hope that something will open up.”
Michalek, who will turn 34 on Dec. 23, was assigned to Tucson after the Coyotes’ home opener against Philadelphia. He is currently playing out the final year of a two-year $6.4 million deal. He said he saw the writing on the wall when the Coyotes re-signed restricted free-agent, right-handed defensemen Connor Murphy and Michael Stone, while signing free-agent right-hander Luke Schenn and acquiring right-hander Anthony DeAngelo in a draft-day trade.
“I’ve been around a long time and when you see the team bringing so many D in during the summer it’s easy math,” he said. “Somebody has to be the odd man out. When I was looking at it, the only solution I saw was me being the odd man out so I had a feeling that something like this might happen. I wasn’t shocked but at the same time, playing for one team for so long, you would hope for something else.”
Michalek was once a defensive-minded, shot-blocking stalwart for the Coyotes — the ultimate foot soldier who earned the respect of his teammates, coaches and fans. In 781 career games he has 42 goals and 178 points. In 2008-09, he led the NHL with 271 blocked shots and he has finished among the NHL’s top 20 in four seasons.
It won’t surprise anyone who’s been around Michalek to hear this, but since he joined the Roadrunners, Tucson coach Mark Lamb said he has been the perfect role model for the young team.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Lamb said. “He comes to the rink and gives 100 percent and he does his routine. For myself and the coaching staff, he’s been a real good example for the young guys of what it takes to be a good pro. The way he relates to everybody is with a lot of class.”
Lamb said he talked to Michalek upon his arrival because he knew Michalek was taking the demotion hard.
“We know the situation; he knows the situation,” Lamb said. “He’s a hockey player who has had a good NHL career and that’s where he wants to be, but he continues to be a good example for the guys coming up.”
Michalek’s last AHL season before this year was 2004-05 with the Houston Aeros. He admits he had forgotten how hard it could be for young players.
“It is different from being a mentor in the NHL because down here there are a lot guys where it’s their first year of pros coming from juniors,” he said. “Everything is different. They’re living on their own and have to take care of themselves. They don’t know yet what it takes to be a pro.
“Anything I can do for them, if they need help, I can talk to them.”
Michalek has been living out of a hotel for the past month, but he is searching for a small place to rent for the rest of the season. He commutes back to his family home in Scottsdale at least once a week to see his wife, Helena, his son, Andreas, and his daughter, Ella.
He talks to Coyotes players, but he hasn’t talked with anyone from the Coyotes management team or coaching staff since his demotion.
“They told me they want to go young and play the young guys. I have to respect that,” he said. “There’s nothing else I can do but obviously I don’t like it and I’m not going to leave money on the table so I’ll do what I have to do.
“I have turned the page. I don’t want to burn any bridges. My career might come to an end soon and who knows, maybe there’s a job for me later on in the organization so I want to stay respectful to them because they have been treating me really nice. I know it’s not an ideal situation for them either, but they’ve always respected me.”
As for the future, Michalek said he would wait until the end of the season to decide if he’ll keep playing.
“I have been thinking about it a lot but I just want to see what happens,” he said. “Some of it depends on my health. If I feel I can do another year or two, obviously the NHL would be my No. 1 place I’d like to play, but I know the league is going younger and in a different direction so it might be next to impossible to get a job next year.
“There’s a chance I might play in Europe for a couple years and bring my family so they can experience the lifestyle there. It’s pretty good hockey and a pretty good living and it would be a pretty cool experience for my kids to experience both worlds and decide what I’m doing in the rest of my life once my career does end.”
Coyotes at Oilers
When: 1 p.m., Sunday
Where: Rogers Place, Edmonton, Alta.
TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus
Radio: KTAR News 92.3 FM
Records: Coyotes 7-10-2. Oilers 12-8-2.
Season series: Arizona, 1-0.
Injury report: Coyotes — C Brad Richardson (broken right tibia and fibula) is out indefinitely. G Louis Domingue (lower body) is on IR. C Laurent Dauphin (upper body) is day to day so the Coyotes recalled C Tyler Gaudet from Tucson. Oilers — RW Iiro Pakarinen (knee), D Mark Fayne (leg), Andrew Ference (hip) and Brandon Davidson (shoulder) are on IR.
Scouting the Oilers: C Connor McDavid has four goals and nine points in his last four games. … Arizona has recorded a point in 24 straight games (20-0-4) against Edmonton, matching the 24-game run Edmonton had from 1985 to 1988 against Vancouver. … The Coyotes beat Edmonton 3-2 in a shootout on Friday at Gila River Arena. … Edmonton’s new arena, Rogers Place, is one of the arenas the Coyotes ownership group toured to get ideas for their own, proposed arena.