DETROIT - From playing a packed Joe Louis Arena to meeting the Syracuse Crunch before 600 people in Schomberg., Ont., it’s a long trip down the bumpy hockey highway in one weekend.
But Mike Zigomanis is getting used to such variance in his role as minor league mentor/emergency NHL centreman. And were he to show resentment at being called to The Show for just 24 hours, it wouldn’t sit right with his employers and the young Toronto prospects who are watching his lead. The 30-year-old knew going into Friday’s Leafs-Red Wings game that bagging a hat trick wouldn’t keep him from a seat on the bus to Schomberg or the return AHL exhibition at War Memorial in Syracuse on Tuesday.
“If that’s the role I fit into, then I’m okay with it,” Zigomanis said Friday morning at the MasterCard Centre, after being summoned because of a rash of Leafs injuries. “I wouldn’t look into (a longer NHL stint), I’ll probably be going back right after this game. But you always stay ready, because you never know when the opportunity is going to come.”
Zigomanis was still in the Leafs’ NHL picture a year ago when lack of depth opened up jobs at centre and the Toronto native signed as a free agent. He played eight games and had one assist before being shipped to the Marlies.
“You’ve not heard the last of Mike in the NHL,” one Leafs staffer predicted.
But much younger players were called up ahead of him and they did very well, in part because of lessons the former second-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes passed on from more than 300 games in the AHL and Sweden. Zigomanis compiled 47 points in 64 games to finish first in Marlie scoring, was a minus-3 with six power-play goals. But his true value to the franchise might have been on those elongated AHL road trips,
“Mike has been leading for a long time — maybe he just wasn’t aware of it,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.
“If Mike is with the Marlies, we hope that our other players take serious note of how he conducts himself on the ice and in our community. This is a guy who leaves no stone unturned when it comes to diet, training and the details of the game.
“He is always looking to get better. We would love for all of our players to be as committed as Mike is.”
It’s easy to put a veteran into a room full of 20-somethings and hope he rubs off, but it has to be the right fit. Zigomanis was a good choice because he’s well aware how the hockey world functions, going back as a hot junior prospect (two 40-goal seasons with Kingston), the pressure of living up to his draft status, handling a trade (twice), a season ruined by injury and a piece of the Stanley Cup with Sidney Crosby and the 2008-09 Penguins. He also knows this demanding hockey market.
So there was little that general manager Brian Burke had to say when it became clear Zigomanis wasn’t going to beat out anyone ahead of him.
“I didn’t (have a sit-down with Burke), but if you’re around the game long enough, you kind of know where you fit in,” Zigomanis said. “You try to make the best of what you have in front of you and play your role.
“If you look at what happened last year, there were Marlies who during the year were looking at playing in Europe, trying something else and wondering if pro hockey would happen for them. Suddenly they were playing 18 minutes a night (for the Leafs). It’s a credit to them sticking with it. It’s a long, hard battle for guys who’ve been journeymen in the minors. To get a shot like that shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“As an old guy, you kind of want to fit in that leadership role. Anything I can do to help the young guys I’m ready for, whether it’s here or with the Marlies.”
The call to join the Leafs on Thursday night carried the same rush as his first NHL game and Zigomanis quickly tweeted it to the world.
“You get excited even at 30,” he laughed. “Friends and family want to tune in to watch.”
He hoped to make it worthwhile for everyone.