From The Star
ANAHEIM, CALIF.—It was this past August that Leo Komarov made headlines for a sin of his past.
In the summer of 2014 he had been pulled over by police in his native Finland. The way he remembers it, he was doing 77 km/h in a 50 zone. He was returning from a friend’s house in his BMW SUV. The police had set up a speed trap less than a kilometre from his home.
“The police officer stopped me and said I was driving fast,” Komarov was saying earlier this season. “And I said, ‘Yeah. I feel sorry for that.’ ”
Finland has a system in which fines for certain offences are based on income. The officer checked a computer database, where Komarov’s income was listed at zero. He’d been playing in Russia, in the Kontinental Hockey League, the previous season. The day before, he’d signed a four-year deal to rejoin the Maple Leafs, where he would earn an annual average of $2.95 million (U.S.) beginning in the fall. But when the officer asked him if his current income was listed correctly, Komarov said it was. He was, after all, between jobs.
“I was not lying,” Komarov said.
This apparently did not go over well with various folks in Finland’s criminal justice system. Perhaps to make an example of him, this past summer the authorities slapped him with a steep fine — the equivalent of about $54,000 Canadian — and made a considerable fuss about it in the Finnish media.
Komarov said he didn’t mind paying the fine — “I feel bad for driving too fast,” he said — but there was something he didn’t appreciate about the way the matter was handled.
“It was kind of a small thing . . . And (the authorities) just made too big a thing of it,” Komarov said. “It’s because I’m a hockey player. Every time you do something, you know it’s going to be all over the media.”
Maybe it could have been framed as a curse, then, that Komarov was all over the media yet again Wednesday, when he was named as the Maple Leafs’ lone representative at next month’s NHL all-star game. Though he is renowned among teammates as a piano-playing, multiple-language-speaking dressing-room jokester, Komarov generally only styles himself as a fun guy to be around within the privacy of the team’s impenetrable bubble.
Publicly he prefers the lowest profile possible, often treating the attention of cameras and reporters as an obligation to be fulfilled in the dullest of monotones with the blandest of team-first, try-hard outlooks. In a season in which he has already set career highs of 15 goals and 27 points in 37 games heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the Anaheim Ducks, he has made a habit of deferring all credit to the work of the men he plays alongside or the luck of the bounces.
His coach, Mike Babcock, loves him for it.
“He’s been a real good teammate and a real good pro,” Babcock said Wednesday. “We’re proud he’s been honoured this way, and it should help him feel good about himself.”
Certainly one can make a case Komarov is an accidental all-star. Case in point: On Wednesday teammate James van Riemsdyk ran into Komarov at the team hotel and informed Komarov he’d been named to the all-star roster.
“I don’t think he believed me when I told him,” van Riemsdyk said.
Komarov, who had planned a trip to an unnamed beach for the all-star weekend, acknowledged that he only accepted van Riemsdyk’s congratulations after he checked his phone for confirmation.
“I saw it online today on the Internet. And it’s actually pretty fun. But I’m not trying to think of that, because we’ve got pretty important games here. But yeah, it feels good,” Komarov said. “Like I always say, it’s my teammates. I play with (centre Nazem Kadri) for the whole season and he’s doing really good. So it’s not me making it — it’s all the teammates and the whole team.”
How would he feel, he was asked, about forgoing his vacation in the sun for the NHL’s new-fangled format of a 3-on-3 tournament in Nashville?
“It’s my job to be a hockey player,” he said.
Make no mistake: Even if Komarov’s career-high shooting percentage of 19.0% as of Wednesday suggests he is benefitting from some good fortune, he has been doing his job exceedingly well. In the low-scoring NHL, where the vast majority of goals are scored in close proximity to the net, he has carved out a niche as a fearless disturber of the opposing team’s blue paint.
But for all the chaos he can cause, he’s done it with discipline, picking up just 18 penalty minutes through 37 games, tied for fifth on the team.
“If he throws a big check or something, and then someone comes to him after the whistle, he acts like the guy isn’t even there,” said Joffrey Lupul, the veteran Leafs forward. “And I think that can be pretty irritating to people. It’s not in his best interest or our team’s best interest for him to be in the box. So it’s good. It’s a skill to turn the other cheek like that. Not a lot of guys can do that.”
Korbinian Holzer, the ex-Leafs defenceman now playing for the Ducks who roomed with Komarov at a prospect camp years ago, said Komarov has a way of getting under the skin of hockey players — both the opponents and “even in his own room.”
“He can drive people crazy. But he’s also a good guy,” Holzer said. “He picks on everybody. And the way he says some things are pretty funny. His all-round character is pretty funny.”
Said Morgan Rielly, the third-year defenceman, speaking of Komarov a while back: “He’ll take your passport on the plane and hide it. He’ll take your phone. He’ll take your room key at the hotel. He’s funny. He just likes being around the guys. He can’t be alone, we always say.”
In an interview earlier this season Komarov dismissed the suggestion he’s the thief in that scenario.
“They do that to me,” Komarov said. “Yeah, they (mess) around with me a lot. It’s funny, though. They know I’m not going to get mad.”
If Komarov’s comedic side doesn’t come out in his day-to-day dealings with reporters, teammates James Reimer theorized that “maybe the English barrier makes it harder to be in the limelight, because you’ve got to come up with words that maybe don’t come naturally.”
Komarov, asked recently why his ho-hum public persona is so at odds with the tales of his inner-circle clowning, smiled a little.
“I think I’m pretty shy. It’s not tough to get to know me. But I’m different. I’m trying to behave myself a little bit for you guys (in the media),” he said. “And then when I’m with the boys, I’m just myself. That’s how I’ve always been. I’m not going to change.”
And as for the constant deferring of credit to his teammates, Komarov has long insisted it’s not a put-on. An all-star nod might be nice, but he said the bonds he’s forged on hockey rinks are “the best thing you can have in your life.”
“I played in Moscow for five years, I’ve got great friends who are still playing there. It gives you energy every day you come in. Even if they’re messing around with (your passport) and stuff like that — they’re your best friends right now,” Komarov said. “At some point you get enough of it, too. When the season ends it’s nice to go home and see your other friends. And drive slow. But then in a couple of weeks, you’re going to start missing the boys on the team.”