BUFFALO – Michael Zigomanis still sees familiar faces everywhere around the Sabres. There’s Darcy Regier, the general manager who drafted him 14 years ago. There’s Doug McKenney, the strength coach who began shaping his teenage frame into a man’s body.
Zigomanis credits both men with teaching him how to be a professional.
“It’s an honor to be part of their organization again,” the 32-year-old said Friday after practicing inside the First Niagara Center.
Zigomanis, the 64th overall pick by the Sabres in 1999, was once a touted center prospect. He thought he would be joining the organization in 2001 after signing his first professional contract.
Then one of the oddest incidents in franchise history took place.
The Sabres submitted Zigomanis’ contract to the NHL right at the deadline. But the fax machine malfunctioned, so the league didn’t receive the paperwork in time.
Incredibly, the NHL wouldn’t honor the deal. The Sabres lost Zigomanis’ rights and he re-entered the draft. Carolina selected him 46th overall.
“It was a long time ago,” Zigomanis said about the botched fax. “I really don’t want to focus on the negative stuff. But, yeah, it wasn’t a disagreement back then. I don’t know if we have enough reel on the recorder to tell the whole story. It wasn’t the Buffalo Sabres (or) myself. It was much more than that.
“The NHL got involved, the NHLPA. So it was kind of in their hands. We came to an agreement. But it was more in their hands than our hands. Bit of fax issues, yeah.”
Zigomanis, a terrific faceoff man, has enjoyed a strong professional career, although NHL success has been limited. He scored 14 goals with Phoenix in 2006-07 and won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2008-09 (he was injured during the Penguins’ playoff run). Those are his only two full NHL seasons, however.
He’s mostly spent the last 13 seasons shuttling between the NHL and the minors, becoming a valuable AHL asset. The Sabres, who inked the Zigomanis to a one-year AHL deal in July, want him to mentor their prospects with the Rochester Americans.
“You create your culture a lot of times with who you bring into it, and he’s one of those guys you want in it,” said Sabres coach Ron Rolston, whose club opens the preseason tonight in Montreal.
Having faced the Amerks 31 times during the last three seasons with the Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leafs’ affiliate, Zigomanis knows some new teammates well.
“We played him a lot to know he’s a really good hockey player,” said Rolston, who coached Rochester until February. “He’s excellent on faceoffs. He’s got a lot of character to him. He’s physically in unbelievable shape. He can play penalty killing. He can play power play. He’s versatile. He’s smart.”
Rolston and Sabres prospect Phil Varone called Zigomanis the AHL’s top faceoff man.
“I think I had my most troubles against him,” Varone said. “He works hard. He’ll do whatever the team asks of him, and he’s obviously in great shape. You can tell the way he keeps his body.”
Zigomanis, 6-feet tall and 200 pounds, takes special care of his body by eating a vegan diet and training with Brendan Brazier, an ex-ironman. He said he gave up red meat six or seven years ago before abstaining from animal products.
He feels a difference.
“Off the ice, I feel a lot better,” Zigomanis said. “On the ice, my inflammations (are) almost gone. I’ve had a number of surgeries in the past, and the last three years I’ve felt great. I attribute that to the diet.”
Zigomanis last appeared in the NHL three years ago, playing eight games. Despite only having an AHL contract, he’s hoping he can earn a place with the Sabres, something he almost certainly would’ve had early last decade if that fax reached the NHL.
“I’m not there yet,” Zigomanis said about Rochester. “If that is where I am, I’ll be one of the older guys, just making sure I’m showing the younger guys how to be pro day in, day out, come to the rink, work hard, watching your nutrition. Just be a professional.”
Like Regier and McKenney taught him.
Rolston wouldn’t say what type of lineup he’ll field against the Canadiens. He said goalies will split work tonight.
The Sabres are expected to make the first training camp reassignments today.