With friends like these

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:36 PM ET

In the early stages of the Maple Leafs season opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre, Mike Komisarek's radar will focus in on some approaching victim with his head down.

It might be Andrei Markov, his former defence partner. Or, Josh Gorges, a pal he still chats with on the phone.

No matter.

Mike Komisarek will try to crush the guy.

That is what he does.

"There are a lot of guys I train with, I play with, I'm friends with off the ice," the big defenceman explains. "But it doesn't matter who you are playing against. Once that whistle blows, there are no friends out there if they are not wearing the same jersey as you.

"There are no friends on the ice. It's all business once you are on the ice. We will do whatever it takes to get that first win."

And how sweet would it be if that victory were to come at the expense of the Canadiens, the only NHL team he had ever played for prior to this season.

"I don't think you'd want it any other way," Komisarek said. "Playing against an Original Six team. My former team.

"Awesome."

- - -

The date is July 1, the opening of the free-agency period, and Komisarek, having just inked a five-year, $22.5-million US deal with the Leafs, is checking his phone messages.

One is particularly intriguing. It's from Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey.

"He told me I could call him about anything if I ever needed anything," Komisarek says.

What he needed -- or wanted -- was to remain a Montreal Canadien. At least, that was the case two years earlier when he approached the Habs about a potential contract extension.

"(At the time), I couldn't imagine going somewhere else," Komisarek recalls.

But the Canadiens were not ready to make a commitment. Not even to the rugged defenceman that many figured would take over as captain once the classy Saku Koivu left town. They preferred to wait.

By the latter stages of last season, the environment around the Canadiens had dramatically changed. The team was playing nowhere near the expectations its management and fan base had for its 100th season. All the while, Gainey would not negotiate with any of the team's pending free agents.

"During the season, I never wanted to put myself ahead of the team in terms of negotiating knowing that there were 10 or 11 other guys that were in the same boat," Komisarek says.

The knocks against Komisarek in Montreal are well-documented. He was too one-dimensional and offered little offensively. He was never the same after Boston's Milan Lucic popped out his shoulder during a November scrap. There were even suggestions that the Canadiens did make an offer to him this summer, although, if so, not for the amount of money or tenure tabled by the Leafs.

"I read some stuff that was said after July 1st," Komisarek says. "I'm just not a big fan of getting into the he-said, she-said thing.

"I have tremendous respect for Bob and what he does. I learned a lot from him."

Komisarek will always have a soft spot for Gainey and Habs owner George Gillette. Back in 2005, when Komisarek's mom, Kathy, valiantly fought a losing battle with cancer, Gainey and Gillette allowed Komisarek to regularly travel back to Long Island on off-days to be with her. Both men were on hand for her funeral.

But friends are friends and business is business. And, no matter how close Gainey and Komisarek had been in the past, this was business.

It's the same philosophy Komisarek will take on to the ice Thursday when he tries to hammer his friends and former teammates.

- - -

In the days after he had signed with the Leafs, Mike Komisarek probably heard the following question more than any other.

"Why Toronto?"

On the surface, the answer should be easy. Money. Tenure. The two most prized commodities most free agents are looking for.

But after finding himself in the circus that was Montreal last season, where a player seemed to be in the public spotlight in the nightclubs as much as he would be on the ice, you would have thought anonymity would have been high on Komisarek's list.

Why not the Islanders, whose home rink, the decaying Nassau Coliseum, is just a slapshot away from where he grew up?

But that's not what Mike Komisarek wanted.

He wanted to play in a place where hockey was part of cultural fabric, even if, like in Montreal, it resembled some kooky reality TV series at times, with the Kostitsyn brothers playing starring roles.

He wanted to play for a team with fangs, one ruled by intimidation.

And he wanted to play in a market with a hockey tradition -- even if it meant going to a city that had not hosted a Stanley Cup parade since 1967.

"I think it's that extra spice that some guys like, some guys don't," Komisarek says of playing in a fishbowl like Toronto.

"It is definitely a little spicier here than it is somewhere down south. But I guess it's a personal preference. And at the end of the day, who wouldn't enjoy a place like this?"

Even if it means making certain you are always on your best behaviour away from the rink?

"Absolutely," he replies. "You are representing a storied franchise when you go on the ice.

"I think, from what I've seen, the guys in our dressing room are learning what it means to be a Toronto Maple Leaf. Guys are very respectful of that and take it very seriously. It comes down to being proud of representing all the honoured jerseys and great players before you."

Komisarek's respect for hockey tradition was forged in Montreal, which has more than any other city in the world.

It was there that he learned from the likes of Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau what the word "class" really meant. In fact, he still calls the legendary Hab "Mr. Beliveau."

"A person like Mr. Beliveau, you spend 15 minutes with them, you shake their hand, you feel like a better hockey player," Komisarek says. "They have so many great life experiences.

"Look at Mr. Beliveau. He has a laundry list of on-ice accomplishments but also returns every piece of fan mail, personalized. He generously gives his time to the community almost every single day.

"It's nice to give back to the community with a smile on your face."

- - -

Mike Komisarek is sitting in front of his cubicle after the morning skate yesterday when it is suggested to him that he is the perfect candidate to wear the captain's 'C' for the Leafs in the immediate future.

"Why me?" he responds humbly. "There is a lot of leadership in this room. We'll see what happens next season. But not now."

Management already knows the potential impact of Komisarek and fellow free agent addition defenceman Francois Beauchemin. Each have been wearing an 'A' on his Leafs jersey despite never having played a regular season game for the team.

Their impact already has been tangible. With the focus directly on these two veterans, teenaged defenceman Luke Schenn has been allowed to quietly go about his business, sponging any information he can.

A year ago, Schenn, who was just 18 at the time, was one of the only Maple Leafs who would get his nose dirty in order to come to the aid of a teammate.

That won't be the case any more.

Not with Komisarek on the scene.

Jut ask some of his former teammates he plans on crushing Thursday night.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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