A.J. Jenks’ hockey career has been littered with memorable happenings, including getting drafted by the Florida Panthers, playing in an NHL preseason game, winning a gold medal at the World Junior Championships, and making it to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Finals with the Toledo Walleye.
“But, I mean, truthfully: Everything in my professional career really pales in comparison to winning a championship,” said Jenks, 31, who is retiring after he captained the Komets to the Kelly Cup last season.
Jenks spent two seasons with the Komets -- he was named captain on Dec. 31, 2019 -- and the forward accrued 26 goals, 64 points and 94 penalty minutes in 91 regular-season games.
There wasn’t a postseason in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Jenks was in terrific form for the run to the Kelly Cup this year, totaling four goals, 10 points and 18 penalty minutes in 13 playoff games, to say nothing of the leadership, physical play and ability to win key faceoffs.
“I feel really good about this decision (to retire), honestly. The way I see it is, the way I feel about the game and playing, there was never going to be a time that I wanted to get away from it. I’m always going to want to play. But it’s no secret that you can’t play forever,” Jenks said.
“I figure my days in the American Hockey League, or being a prospect for the NHL, are a little ways behind me. So after winning a championship here, I don’t feel I have a whole lot left to prove, so that made it a little easier.”
Jenks, a native of Wolverine Lake, Michigan, spent 11 seasons in professional hockey, totaling 159 goals, 337 points and 515 penalty minutes in 579 regular-season games in the ECHL and AHL. He also played 103 postseason games, all in the ECHL, and accrued 38 goals, 67 points and 138 penalty minutes.
He spent five seasons with the Komets’ chief rival, Toledo, which lost to the Newfoundland Growlers in the 2019 Kelly Cup Finals, and it took signing with Fort Wayne to realize his dream of winning a pro championship.
Hoisting the Cup at Memorial Coliseum in July made it easier to decide to retire, even if the Komets had been hoping to get another season out of him.
“Oh, man, winning the Cup had a huge impact, absolutely,” Jenks said. “It’s something I’d been chasing for a really long time and I’d been really close more than once (with Toledo and the Florida Everblades). Winning definitely made the decision-making process a hell of a lot easier, that’s for sure.”
While injuries had played a part in Toledo’s decision to part with Jenks, he sat out only 21 games with the Komets, most of them as the team tried to keep him fresh amid a compacted schedule.
When the Komets completed their finals victory over the South Carolina Stingrays -- they won 2-1 to take the series 3-1 -- they’d played 19 games in 36 days, covering five states and 8,355 miles (4,625 traveled by bus, 3,730 by airplane), with only seven of the games at the Coliseum. That wasn’t conducive to a player of Jenks’ age.
“I didn’t have real significant injuries through the year that were too, too serious,” Jenks said. “But at the same time, the way the schedule was, jumping into the season a little bit late (in February), it was (challenging) trying to cram all those games in. And the scheduling in our playoff run was completely absurd.”
Jenks, who got married to Stefany while a member of the Komets, then had a son, Arthur, isn’t yet sure what he’ll do now and could move back to Michigan.
The Komets have 12 players signed so far for this season, which begins Oct. 23 at the Coliseum against the Wheeling Nailers, and that includes six players who were with the team last season -- Anthony Petruzzelli, Zach Pochiro, Oliver Cooper, Blake Siebenaler, Marcus McIvor and Stefanos Lekkas.
Petruzzelli was an alternate captain last season and, based on the current roster, would be the most logical choice to be captain. But the team still needs to sign at least 10 more players.
Shawn Szydlowski, who spent the eight seasons with the Komets, is expected to have surgery on his back this week and that will take him out several months -- potentially ending his time with the Komets or even his career.
The Komets have also yet to re-sign coach Ben Boudreau to a new contract, though the sides have been talking for months.