Shane Doan is by far the most fabled and praised face of the Arizona Coyotes franchise, rightly so, and the season-ending game between the Coyotes and the Minnesota Wild seemed to possibly mark the end of his career. However, Doan is not the only player of note who could have donned an NHL jersey for the very last time.
Defenseman Zbynek Michalek has played 612 of his total 784 NHL games for the Coyotes. That is the second most - behind Doan of course- games played by a player for the Coyotes. It is the seventh most in the entire franchise, dating back to the Winnipeg Jets days.
Over the years Michalek has become a staple of the Coyotes’ blue line, and very easily a fan favorite. For good reasons.
The Coyotes’ final game of the season was not the first time that Michalek had returned to Gila River Arena- though it may by far be the most emotional.
In the past, the defenseman has returned as the opposition, during his two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins and his short stint with the St. Louis Blues, and a friendly face, returning to the club after both times away.
In a way, Michalek always seemed to find his way “home.”
But in the 2016-17 season Michalek returned to Gila River Arena in a new way; for the first time since he broke into the league permanently in 2005-06, Michalek returned as a member of an AHL team.
On October 10, 2016, Michalek was placed on waivers, seven days later he was assigned to Arizona’s brand-new AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners.
A long career littered with injuries and most recently concussion issues, paired with a suddenly defense-heavy lineup for the Coyotes resulted in the move.
Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of Michalek’s career is that he went undrafted. Now, after paving his way in the NHL for 13 seasons he is often listed as one of the top 10 undrafted talents.
He first played for the Shawinigan Cataractes in the QMJHL, before making the AHL’s Houston Aeros, Minnesota’s affiliate. After that season he spent a season split between the NHL and AHL clubs. Michalek didn’t stick in the NHL permanently until he got his start with the then-Phoenix Coyotes in the 2005-06 season.
The 2016-17 season marked the first time that Michalek would be demoted since. But ever the consummate professional that so many know him to be, he took it in stride and found his role within the team quickly.
There was no skirting what Michalek was there to do. Be a veteran force on a young team who would struggle to find an identity. No one in that locker room has as much experience as Michalek, or if you’re the players “Big Z.” It’s possible no one has more respect either.
In 43 games with the Roadrunners Michalek recorded 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists), but it is not his presence on the scoresheet that mattered. It was his presence in a locker room during a season in which a fledgling team struggled.
Michalek, who has been around for some of the Coyotes darkest days, is no stranger to hockey struggles. Though hockey struggles wouldn’t be the only struggles the Roadrunners would face this season.
The loss of Captain Craig Cunningham was an emotional struggle that no one could have prepared for.
“We’ve gone through a lot as a team, so in ways, it’s a learning experience still,” said Michalek to FFH in February. “You learn new things as you go along, especially this year, with everything we’ve been through. We’re definitely a close group and for a reason. Things like what has happened this season brings guys together.”
But still, Michalek pushed on through the season, as did the rest of team. His focus and his goal never changed. He mentored the younger players, all of them, but especially the defensive players like Kyle Wood.
“Z is a huge help with everything,” Wood said, before his AHL All-Star debut. “He’s not only a good role model and veteran, but he’s just a good presence to have in the locker.”
Michalek had an unstated job when being assigned to the minors. Help to nurture the success of the young players in the pipeline, giving back to the team that gave him the chance at the NHL dream. It was a job he focused on and did incredibly well.
“I want to be that leader in the dressing room and on the ice,” Michalek said. “Have fun, enjoy it. I still love playing – it doesn’t matter what level it is, I love to compete, and play hockey. I’m really enjoying myself with these young guys.”
In February Michalek got the chance to return and play at Gila River Arena, just not the way he used to. The Roadrunners were facing the Charlotte Checkers in a two-game series. Returning to Gila in this new capacity wasn’t easy for Michalek.
“It’s hard. There’s a lot of memories, obviously coming back here brings back a lot of memories,” Michalek said. “For myself, it’s just nice to be back here. I think it’s just important to take away the positives from my time here. Obviously, it wasn’t ideal at first, I still wanted to be in the NHL and play there. Now I just want to make the most of it. It was really hard at first especially mentally. But you have to take it day by day, stay positive, have a good mindset and just be a role model to the younger guys. Do what it takes to help the team.”
At every step of the way this season, being every bit the incredible player that people have come to know Michalek as on and off the ice, he was doing what it took to help the team.
In the very end, he was rewarded for it.
With 11 games left in the regular season, the Coyotes recalled Michalek. It was an important act on the Coyotes part. One that spoke of gratitude and respect for all that Michalek had done, all that he had given to the organization for it to succeed over the years.
He would only play three games with the Coyotes during that stretch, but he was given the opportunity to return home to Gila River Arena one last time.
His final game in a Coyotes sweater would be an emotional 3-1 loss to the Wild.
To say that the game against the Wild wasn’t a special one for Michalek just going by the stat sheet would be a disservice to the career that Michalek had. One where he racked up a total of 178 points in the NHL. The game also marked the end of an era for the Coyotes.
The last time Michalek, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata would be on the ice together in the NHL. Perhaps Doan’s final game and the end to his story in the NHL.
The league as a whole is shifting to be younger and younger. Eventually, time catches up to everyone. Even franchise legends and fan favorites.
As he stood outside his car after the game, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans, many asked Michalek not to leave. Whether they meant the Coyotes or hockey in general, it doesn’t matter. His response was the same.
“It’s not my choice, trust me. It’s not my choice.”
That’s the sad reality of hockey. Players give their all to the game, their mind and body, day in and day out for years on end. Until suddenly they’re faced with the possibly of no longer being able to do so.
That seems to be the case for Doan, who at age 40 surely would play in the NHL for the rest of his life if he realistically could. One day, though it seems hard to imagine, that will be the case for even Jaromir Jagr.
The game has seen many faces come and go. Some leave on top of their game, some at the end of a waning career, some like Craig Cunningham, who was honored at the ceremonial puck drop, have the game ripped away from them.
In the end though, as is the case for every player, not just Zbynek Michalek, it will be too soon.
While it seems unlikely another NHL team will take interest in Michalek he could still pursue a career in the Euro leagues. But perhaps he will hang up his skates for good, opting to spend time with his family.
No matter what hockey journey Zbynek Michalek endeavors on next, he can depart from the Coyotes having left a legacy to be proud of.