By Michael Sharp
Press & Sun-Bulletin
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. – Out driving earlier this week, one-time Binghamton Senators enforcer Mike Sgroi laughed a brief, knowing laugh. And then he laid it out there.
Just how hungry is he to make this work, this next shot at the American Hockey League?
“Everything I’ve worked for my entire life depends on how I do here right now,” said Sgroi, who is two games into a 25-game tryout agreement with the Syracuse Crunch, which visits Binghamton again at 7:05 on Friday.
“I’m 30-years-old. I’m in the best shape of my life. Hungrier than I’ve ever been. And I’ve been more dedicated, done more things toward the betterment of my hockey career the last eight months, than I’ve ever done. So, that’s how important it is.”
And so, yes, Thursday was Christmas, but Sgroi wasn’t going anywhere. His holiday plan was a date with a Syracuse gym — a spin on the exercise bike, another round of push-ups and sit-ups.
While the rest of the league caught its breath this holiday week, Sgroi pushed on.
“I’m basically trying to make it hard on myself here, trying to get an edge on guys for Friday and Saturday’s games,” said Sgroi, noting also that he has already had two months away from the rink, while working his way back from a broken right hand.
“I know a lot of guys … are just going to be getting loose with their families and stuff. … I’m going to hit the gym every one of these days (this holiday week), and relax and be prepared to play (tonight).”
Sgroi got a look this fall in training camp with the Crunch, but his hopes of returning to the AHL suffered a setback in a preseason game against Rochester, when he threw a right and caught the top of Ryan-James Hand’s head during a fight.
That came on his first shift of the night. Still, he played the rest of the game before letting on about the injury.
Now, after four games with the ECHL’s Johnstown Chiefs, Sgroi is back with the Crunch. He marked his return to the AHL last Friday night in Binghamton, scoring a second-period goal against the B-Sens.
“You know, last year I got 25 goals in the (ECHL) playing, and no one called me up,” he said. “I really wanted to show people that (they) could use me as a player, if they need to. They can insert me into the lineups on the second, third line, or if somebody’s not playing well, or something like that. It’s just been a goal of mine the last three or four years.
“I see the trend that’s happening. The fighters that can’t play, they don’t play. And they’re not in the lineup. I need to start showing people that I can play, and contribute. Hit, score and fight. I want to be an all-around player now.”
No stranger to the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena, Sgroi put up five points and 125 penalty minutes in 32 games with the B-Sens during the 2006-07 season, providing something of a spark by filling what had been a vacant enforcer role that year.
And though he wasn’t re-signed the ensuing offseason, he said he harbors no ill will toward his former team.
“I know how it works,” he said, before adding with a laugh: “You know, it’s not like somebody unworthy took my job there.”
And indeed, of current B-Sens and former ECHL enforcer Jeremy Yablonski, he said: “He’s certainly worthy of being an American League or NHL fighter. … He’s a great kid, and a great character guy, and he’s tougher than nails. So if it was somebody who wasn’t as good, and believe me, there’s other teams that have guys that I shake my head and go, ‘How the hell does that happen?’ Binghamton is not one of those teams.”
Yablonski provided a highlight moment in last week’s shootout win over the Crunch, squaring off with former Bakersfield Condors enforcer Jon Mirasty for a lengthy fight after the second period, with both teams lined up on their respective blue lines watching.
“I think it was honestly one of the greatest fights that I’ve ever watched,” Sgroi said. “And I’m talking video, live. … That matches up with every great, classic fight I’ve ever seen.”
But it wasn’t the only memorable fight of the weekend for Sgroi.
The following night, in a 4-0 loss to Lake Erie, Sgroi squared off with Monsters forward Alex Penner, who just recently had been his teammate with the Chiefs.
Sgroi, who like many enforcers has fought close friends of his before, said this was a particularly strange showdown, mainly because he had just been working with the 22-year-old Penner in Johnstown.
“We kind of knew what each other was going to do, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “But it was just weird, because I didn’t see that ever happening, you know? Which is probably one of the reasons why I was teaching him.”
Sgroi added, with a laugh: “I didn’t have any problems punching him, though. And he didn’t have any problems punching me, either. We had a pretty long, grueling fight.”