Ales Kotalik had just about had enough. Two seasons of pain and disappointing play were leading to a demotion from the NHL. The thought of returning to the American Hockey League after nine years away from the minors had the winger thinking he should go home to Europe instead.
Kotalik ultimately decided to accept January's demotion to the Calgary Flames' affiliate of Abbotsford. He's glad he did. Kotalik rediscovered two very important things that had been missing from his life: his hockey skills, and his love of the sport.
"It actually was a good experience for me," Kotalik said Wednesday. "I met some great people and I actually found a little bit of the fun of the game that I was missing for two years. In the end, it was a really positive experience for me."
Last season's stay in the AHL was a rejuvenating event, but Kotalik made it clear he has little desire to do it again. The 32-year-old believes he belongs in the NHL. He's intent on proving that to the Buffalo Sabres when training camp starts in three weeks.
"Absolutely, I want to stay in Buffalo," Kotalik said by phone from the Czech Republic. "I'm coming to training camp with an open mind. I know that I can measure with anybody on that team. I can measure myself up with any guy on that squad, on that team, and I hope I will get the opportunity that I need. Everything else is up to me."
Kotalik, who was drafted by the Sabres and spent his first seven seasons with the club, is back after being included in the deal that brought defenseman Robyn Regehr to town. The biggest question regarding Kotalik is how long he'll be back in Buffalo.
Calgary sent him to the minors twice because of a decline in production, as his paltry numbers (four goals and six points in 26 games) weren't commensurate with his $3 million salary. With the Sabres more than $3.6 million over the salary cap for the upcoming season, the idea of stashing Kotalik and his cap number in Rochester has reached more than a few brains in Sabreland.
"Why would they take me on in a trade if they want to play me in the American Hockey League?" Kotalik asked. "Why would they take that contract on and didn't buy me out? It wouldn't make sense financially, but who knows?"
Indeed, paying a player $3 million to ride buses in the minors isn't commonplace. But owner Terry Pegula's wallet makes it possible. Also, the Sabres are intent on creating a winner in Rochester now that they've reunited with the Amerks. The return of a well-known player who began his career in Rochester would go over positively with the fans -- especially if Kotalik duplicated last season's AHL performance of 22 points in 25 games.
"I came down there with a positive attitude," Kotalik said. "I knew exactly how it was for me when I came to Buffalo to play in Roch with the veterans. The AHL team in Abbotsford was filled with young guys, and I was trying to set the example in practice and everything with what I was doing, be a really good pro and be positive because it was the only way I could help those guys and help myself as well."
Kotalik entered this offseason thinking Abbotsford was his final North American job. Every NHL club passed on him twice during the waiver process, and with the Flames likely to buy him out, he figured he'd never get signed again.
"I truly thought that my years in the NHL are over," he said. "I thought I was going to be bought out and I might be coming back [to the Czech Republic] for good."
Then, at the draft in late June, the Sabres agreed to take Kotalik and his contract from the Flames along with Regehr and a second-round pick in exchange for defenseman Chris Butler and forward Paul Byron.
"I'm excited coming over to see all the people I missed for two years," said Kotalik, who was shipped by Buffalo to Edmonton at the 2009 trade deadline. "When I heard that I was part of the trade with Robyn Regehr, at first I didn't know what to think. Then I got a call from [General Manager] Darcy [Regier] and Terry, and they told me that they took me for a reason. They still think that I can play.
"I'm excited. It feels like I'm at home, and hopefully I can prove to everybody who had doubts about me that I can still play and be a good player for that team."
Kotalik pointed to the 2010-11 preseason as an indicator he can succeed. The winger with the strong slap shot had three goals and two assists before getting hurt in his fourth exhibition. He injured two ligaments in his knee and didn't return to the Flames until early December. They had won just five of the previous 17 games.
"The team was in really big trouble," he said. "Obviously, I came back and needed a few games to get back into it, and I didn't really play much. I played 10-11 minutes. At that time, you have practically no chance of being a factor on the team and kind of fulfill why you've got that contract and what kind of role you would like to have.
"When the new GM came in [Jay Feaster replaced Darryl Sutter in late December] and said he needed changes and needed to clear some salary cap, then I know that I will probably be the one who is going to be pushed around."
The roster shuffling has brought him back to Buffalo, where he topped the 20-goal barrier three times. He has just 22 goals and 22 assists in 116 games since leaving, but he hopes his familiarity with the players and coaching staff will allow him to succeed.
"It's been kind of more down than up since I left the Sabres," Kotalik said. "Now I'm excited about coming back to where it all started, and everything else is up to me."