NHL

Masters: Komarov fills role of Leafs' most interesting man

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Mark Masters
3/5/2013 11:38:04 AM
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Mark Fraser smiles when asked about teammate Leo Komarov and what makes him so darn interesting.

"He was telling us stories the other day about the six months that he had to be in the army in Finland and just some crazy stories," said the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman. "It's just a world we've never experienced, but for him, he's just so nonchalant that he's done this.
 
"It was just amazing the way he could talk about the different guns he would use and we're all thinking, 'We're all professional players and have had nothing close to this experience.'"

Komarov is one of the several new faces on the Leafs roster this season and is most known for his ability to agitate opponents. But he's also filled another role on the team: most interesting man.

Last season, the role of most interesting man in the Leafs room was filled by Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson, who was allowed to leave via free agency last summer. Now, it's Komarov, an Estonian-born son of Russian parents, who grew up in Finland attending a Swedish-language school, that has assumed that mantle.

His time in the Finnish military – all males over 18 living in Finland must spend some time in uniform – is a hot topic in the dressing room these days.

"It was fun," said Komarov, whose brother is still enlisted. "It was nice. I had a gun I'd shoot. We were in the forest for weeks."

Asked to expand on some of the more notable things that happened when he was in the military, Komarov politely declined.

"No, we would need to have some beers," Komarov said with a wry grin. "It's a long story."

'I've got some good stories for a 26-year-old'

On the road, Komarov is roommates with 22-year-old centre Nazem Kadri and so far, they're getting along well.

"He's really good," said Komarov. "He always goes to bed at 11pm, but wakes up too late, though. I'm trying always to wake him up. I guess I'm pretty old already."

"He's just ... I don't know," said Kadri when asked to explain what makes Komarov such an engaging individual. "Sometimes you're like, 'Geez, I wonder what he got up to?' You know what I mean? He's got that look on his face."

Komarov is well aware of his reputation as an international man of mystery. 

"I heard about that. I got some good stories for a 26-year-old," he said without skipping a beat. "I've seen a lot."

"The guy knows four languages," said Leafs winger Matt Frattin, who played on a line with Komarov earlier this season. "He's the most interesting man on the team, that's for sure. He's been all over and there's never a dull moment when you're talking to him.

"He's a smart guy to pick up languages like that. I know half of one [laughs] I know half of English."

Komarov learned English from talking with teammates from Canada and the United States, who he played with overseas in the KHL and Finnish Elite League (SM-liiga), but he still hasn't perfected it. 

"Give me a year and I will be good," Komarov insists.

He also speaks Russian, Finnish and Swedish.

'Just Leo being Leo'

There are just as many layers to Komarov on the ice where he elicits a special kind of hatred amongst opposition players and even sometimes his own teammates.

During a recent practice, he knocked down defenceman Korbinian Holzer from behind in what was supposed to be a fun, light-hearted game at the end of the on-ice workout. After dusting himself off and skating gingerly to the bench, Holzer shouted back at Komarov airing his grievance.

When questioned about the incident an hour later, Holzer sighed and said, "That's just Leo being Leo. He didn't mean to hurt me."

Fraser estimates that a third of all fights and post-whistle scrums in Leafs games are the direct result of Komarov's pesky antics, even though he averages 14:14 minutes of ice time per outing.

So what makes him such a pest?

"I'd probably hate him if I played against him," said Kadri. "He's always finishing his hits. He always seems like he's walking that fine line between illegal and legal. Even if you let the puck go, a couple seconds after, he'll still come in and finish his check and maybe give you a little extra shot, which the ref doesn't see, which definitely, definitely, gets some guys going."

"It's not like he runs around and tries to make a big hit," said Frattin. "It's more just getting his body in the other team's way that makes him so effective. Even if you look at him back-checking, if his guy is going to the net, he's going to get in front of him and use his body so the guy has to go around him instead of having the free lane. It's little things like that which make him hard to play against. He doesn't do anything dirty or cheap. He just plays the game. That's probably the hardest thing for the other team to take. He makes the opposition work to get the space instead of giving them the easy way out."

Although Kadri isn't so sure everything Komarov does is kosher.

"He's a bit shady when he does some of those things," said Kadri. "He's nifty with his stick and, when he's in tight with opponents, he knows how to really irritate them. Once he's been in the league a few more years, I think the refs will kind of get on him a little bit more, but for now I think he's good."

Who has Komarov upset the most?

"I think [Buffalo's Steve] Ott was pretty mad at him and Montreal doesn't particularly like him a whole lot," said a grinning Clarke MacArthur. "He's starting to get his name out there."

Hitting machine

Overall team toughness has been a big part of the new Leafs identity this season and Komarov's particular style of grit is a key component.

"We love it," said Fraser. "For a guy like myself, who tries to record as many hits as I can, be that physical presence, it seems like I can never get more than Leo. He's always outhitting me on the stat sheet, but that's great. That's his energy. That's what he brings and it's phenomenal, being so active and in the face of the players, it not only brings us together, but it helps us fuel off his energy and create some momentum. It's a minor thing, but it's definitely a role thing that counts."

The Leafs lead the NHL in hits (697) and in major penalties (24). But Komarov has not dropped the gloves at all this season. In fact, he has just six minor penalties and two of them were for diving.

Komarov, who enters Tuesday's games third in the NHL in hits (92), believes the presence of guys like Fraser, Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren allows him to be more effective, because he knows he has backup if things go off the rails.

"Of course it helps," he said. "I know we got tough guys on the team, but if there's going to be problems, I will fight as well. I don't like it, but I will do it. We got guys who are strong, who will do that so I don't have to do that."

Komarov can recall fighting just seven times in his career.  

"You never know," he said. "If someone gets upset, because maybe I hit somebody the wrong way and I have to stand up for myself or stand up for somebody else... sometimes you have to do it.

"Fights are good too, they give you energy."

Komarov is reminded that Mikhail Grabovski actually went toe-to-toe with Ottawa Senators tough guy Chris Neil last season.

"Yeah, Grabovski will fight everybody," Komarov said smiling. "He's a pretty angry man."

And although Grabovski and Komarov are close off the ice, Komarov is a bit more levelheaded on the ice.

Unflappable

One of the things that piques the interest about Komarov is his unflappable nature. He refuses to engage in trash talk and will just skate away from scrums, which doesn't sit well with opposing players.

"It's not like he's out there yapping like some of these guys in this league where you want to [shut them up]," said MacArthur. "He just plays hard and when the play's over, that's it."

And off the ice, he takes everything in stride. After scoring his first career NHL goal on a Saturday night (Feb. 9) in the hockey mecca of Montreal, he couldn't be less impressed with himself.

"You know, I've scored goals before," he told reporters, who are used to seeing huge smiles from first-time scorers.

Komarov filled a more prominent role in the KHL during the lockout, playing at times on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

So it's no surprise that Komarov is not about to get carried away when discussing Toronto's 14-9-0 start, which has them sitting comfortably in a playoff position.

"We're a good young team, but we need to keep it going," said Komarov, who won a KHL title a year ago and a world championship with Finland in 2011. "We haven't done anything good yet. If we lose 20 in a row now, everybody will talk s--- about us. We can't even relax now. We just need to keep it going. We'll have bad days and good days coming."

However the Leafs season goes, good or bad, with Komarov in the mix, it is bound to be interesting.

Leo Komarov (Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images)
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