Commie's Russian story: How Babcock sent Mike to the other side of the planet

  • Written by  Danijel Jelenek/Krešimir Biškup
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Photo by Krume Ivanovski/ Photo by Krume Ivanovski/

Mike Commodore is one of the biggest stars in the KHL. A defenseman with a gold medal from the World Championship and a Stanley Cup ring is now playing in the easternmost Russian city. So, Mike, how are things going in Vladivostok?

The first three weeks since I've arrived in Admiral have been contract (re)negotiations. I haven't played my first month while in Admiral. I didn’t play in first game against Medvescak due to a visa issue.

How did it feel to be in Russia?

It's been a little long; I would have liked to have played from the start. It's been good; I’ve been skating with the team. I missed training time, so I had 5 weeks of hard long skating every day. It kind of sucks, but it's been good, to get me in better shape.

How do you cope with jet lag and the time difference?

The travel ling is crazy; every road trip is at least a 9-hour trip. You get to a point, there's nothing you can do about it. You sleep when you can, and you play as hard as you can. It takes at least a 15-hour flight to get from Zagreb to Vladivostok.

Do you have any fears stepping onto a plane after the Lokomotiv accident?

I did, yeah, when I was coming over. It crossed my mind. I think it would cross most people's mind. But I wanted to come over and I like what I do. If I came over and didn't like it, I would leave. But the planes have all been good, I can't complain about that. When we fly, charter or commercial, the planes have been good. Accidents happen, sadly.

How are the Russians treating you?

I was telling my buddy Bill Thomas when we had dinner in Zagreb that as far as playing in the KHL goes, Croatia and Russia are two completely different things. It's good, it's different, not what I'm used to in terms of the team, meetings and time off the ice. Here you always have to be with the team. On the bus, during dinner, it's Russia. Almost every day I break a new rule I didn't know about. Someone walks in and says I was supposed to be somewhere I didn't even know about.

Vladivostok is a nice city, traffic is crazy. They don't speak English but I don't mind it. The guys on the team taught me all the bad words, but also some basic words. I came here (to the KHL) for hockey first, but also for the life experience. I try to keep the most positive attitude.

What happened in the NHL, how come you decided to come to KHL?

KHL camps start in July. I wasn't ready to start in July, and it came and passed. August came and went. There really wasn't much opportunity. I could have gone to NHL camps, but to go to camp without contract with all the younger guys… It's not that I didn't want to compete. It's just that I didn't see the point. To be honest I was waiting at the end of August for a team in the KHL that was supposedly very interested. I kept hearing that the contract is coming, that there was an interest in me, etc. Five weeks later, it was the end of September and I missed the NHL camp. So I decided to come to Vladivostok.

How does it feel to be here (in Zagreb), with a World Championship gold and a Stanley cup under your belt?

It's good. I would like to win here (KHL); it's fun. I like to win. I've been watching games, it's different hockey. I think people would agree that this is probably the second best league in the world. I think that if you would take a team from here and put it on an NHL-sized ice surface it would be faster than the AHL. On big ice it's slower. The skill level in this league is higher than the one in the American league. Not by a whole lot, but I think the skill level in this league is up there, not NHL-level yet but it's close. The structure, system-wise, is up there. The games are a lot more free-flowing, there’s not a lot of stoppage. It's good especially if you're good with the puck. It's nice to have more time if you're patient. This is another thing I'm going to have to get used to. I'm used to get the puck moving, there's always someone on you in the NHL.

How many guys do you know in Medvescak? How does the team compare to teams in the AHL?

I used to play with Steve (Montador), but he got hurt right? I've played against Cheechoo, Kane, Murley, Bill Thomas. When I saw what they were doing I thought it was a great idea. It would be interesting to see at the end of the year how this team does. Basically, this is a good AHL team. There are some guys that have played a lot of years in the American league that are good players. You have guys that were good in the NHL. Cheechoo scored lots of goals, it doesn't matter who you play with or against; you still have to score 56 goals in the NHL. I don't know what happened to him later; it's definitely weird. It'll be interesting to see what happens to this team at the end of the year.

What do you think about the league in general and about the teams?

They need to get more teams out East. This year you play ever team twice, home and away. It's a bit hard for Vladivostok, we play Amur only twice and they're closest to us, only 500 miles out. Maybe a Japanese team, there are couple of teams in Korea. That's what I think. If you have to have teams out there, get a team in Korea, Japan, China. That would be way better for teams like Admiral. Play teams out in the East couple of times; make couple trips to the West but not six or seven.

Why didn't you pick number 64 for your jersey?

They actually had a few jerseys my size, so I could have picked up numbers five, fifty-six, or something like that. I ended taking up number twenty one. But it would be fun to take 64.

Do you watch any NHL?

I've never watched any of the games. I'm more than a few time zones away. I look at the scores sometimes, buddies of mine, friends. I follow Chuck Kobasew from the Pens, few guys on the Rangers, Canadiens… I just cheer for friends, I tend to be neutral.

If you look back at your time in the NHL, how do you feel about it?

To be honest… Did I have a good career? Yeah. Have I done more than most people have expected of me? Probably, yeah. Am I happy with how it ended the last three years? No. I'm very disappointed with how the last three years ended. I'm not even going to count last year. I'm very disappointed with how my last year in Columbus went and with my year in Detroit. I feel I was treated piss poor; I was thrown off the team in Columbus because I was single and I was making a lot of money. The coach was jealous because he played a lot of years, he had a wife and kids and he felt he didn't earn a lot of money so he booted me off the team. The next year he started doing the same to Derick Brassard but he got fired before he could finish it.

So, after that I got bought out, and when you get bought out that’s like... I won't say you can't come back from it, you can, but usually you've got one chance. If it doesn't work, you're done. I got bought out on July 1st; I didn't think I would get any contract, nothing. Fifteen minutes into free agency my agent calls me and tells me that Detroit called. They offered me a contract. I had a bad history with Mike Babcock, I didn't want to have anything to do with him. He tried and succeeded in burying me in the minors in my third pro year, but I got out of it. I wanted nothing to do with him.

They offered me a one year deal worth one million. My gut was screaming: “Don't take it, you've got one chance, if it doesn't go well, you're done in the NHL!”

I told my agent: “I don't want to play in Detroit for Mike Babcock, I don't trust him. Call him back and tell him thank you, we'll get back to you". My agent then told me the GM put a 15 minute time limit on the offer. I needed to make up my mind in 15 minutes or he was gonna pull the offer off the table. This was July 1st, free agency had just started 10 minutes prior. I called the GM and told him: “Ken, Mike Commodore here, I like you, you're a good guy. Is it you who wants me or the coach? “. Ken Holland said that he wanted me and so did Babcock. So I told him that I would love to play for Ken, and I would love to play for the red wings, but that I didn't trust the coach from previous experience. So I called the coach, by now I had 10 minutes left. I called him: “Babs, Mike Commodore here. Please be honest with me, do you want me on your hockey team or not?“ He said he did. I wanted to know if I’d get an opportunity. I told him I am not looking for anything special, but that I needed to know if I was gonna get a fair shot and a chance to play. He said "I want you on my team. You will get a fair chance. We need someone physical on the back end with a right shot. I want you. You will play".

I hung up the phone, five minutes left. My gut screamed “Say No!” This coach screwed me over nine years ago. He buried me in the paper after I had a good camp in Anaheim. He buried me so I would look bad so he could then play his boy from juniors who was an undrafted rookie at camp that year...Kurt Sauer. 6 years later when I finally had a chance to take a shot back at him publicly I did so in the paper when I was in Columbus. But then I started to think about Detroit, a good team, always makes the playoffs, get to play with great players,and about maybe getting the opportunity. So I took Mike Babcock's word and I signed the contract, thirty minutes into free agency. I signed the fucking contract faster than when I was a “hot commodity” four years earlier. I was one of the first players gone that year in free agency. Off the board July 1st.

I went to camp in Detroit, and got scratched out. I did injure my knee a bit so I missed couple of days in camp and the first four games. I got back as if it was nothing major. I came back, and the team won its first five games. I got scratched, but okay, the team was winning. We lost seven in a row, then I wasn’t even close to playing. Scratch, scratch. Finally, it was mid-November, Ian White got a puck to the face and was going to miss a week, we went on a road trip. A four-game road trip, and I thought to myself that this was my chance. I played three games, no two games, I think, three minutes a night… The only time I touched the ice was when the fourth line was on, and the faceoff was in the neutral zone. I was opening the doors for Lidström, that’s all I was doing, being a cheerleader.

Bab then met with me, said he was calling up guys from minors, and scratched me until Christmas. Then the GM forced the coach to play me; I played fifteen games, I fought, I played the best I could with the ice time I was getting. And then I got traded (to Tampa) because Ken Holland felt bad. He's a good guy. He got me out of Detroit because Babcock was trying to end my career. The GM of Tampa is Steve Yzerman, and I got traded for nothing. Yzerman took me, Tampa was good; we were five points out of the playoffs. Guy Boucher talked with me, and he said that as long as we were close to a playoff spot I'd be playing. If we fell out of the playoff zone, they'd be playing two younger defensemen. I ended playing up 11 games. We were in it, then lost a couple in a row and fell out of it. I played in the last game of the year as a thank you in Winnipeg.

What are the best cities you played in?

Chicago and Montreal, because of the crowd and the nice rink.

If you could pick anyone, who would you play with? We're sure Lidström is number 1.

I'll go with Nick (Lidström), it's pretty tough not to pick him. For a goalie I'd go with Cam Ward. Cam's a good goalie. I've played with Brodeur too, but I'll stick to Cam. Forwards, on the wing I'd put Rick Nash, on another spot I'd put Justin Williams, and... Datsyuk, or Zetterberg? Probably Datsyuk, he's more flashy. It's a tough choice.

Unless I end up playing in the NHL again, I’ve finished that part of my career with some 480 games played (484 regular and 53 playoff ) I think it's a joke that I didn’t play at least 600, not a thousand; I've spent way too long in the minors. Two and a half years into my contract I was in one of the best D-pairings in the league. The next year I had a groin injury, it happens. The year after I started in camp, then I got scratched 15 games in a row. But if this is the end, it's the end. I'd like to play in the KHL for the few years; it would be nice to win here.

What about last year, the lock-out year?

I almost went to Italy last year, but then Hamilton called, I thought that was best for me. I had a little bit of interest from Sweden and from Switzerland around three weeks after the NHL camps. But by that time I hadn't played a game in four weeks, hadn't skated, and I didn't want to show up to a team going into a playoffs looking like an asshole. But this was my first choice this year, to go to KHL. It's supposed to be the second best league in world and it's good money.

What do you think about fighting in hockey?

I believe within five years fighting will be out of the game. I like it, I think it should be a part of the game, I don't think they should throw it out. It has to change. If you take out - lets say John Scott, there's another problem. You have a game, Boston against Buffalo. The Bruins have Zdeno Chara, Lucic, McQuaid, these guys are good players. They're not goons, they're all very good players, and they deserve to play in the NHL. But if you take John Scott out of Buffalo, and something happens in the game, maybe Lucic runs the goalie again, who's going to do anything about it in Buffalo? You can't do anything. Kaleta is a 180-pound guy, he's tough, but Lucic is 240 pounds. I don't see how you can just pick and choose, throw goons out of the game. You have these guys who can play but are also tough. That's going to be a huge advantage to them. But this is just me guessing. Guys like Yzerman, Rutheford, there are a handful of GM's that are saying that fighting has got to go. It's the thing now; everyone is thinking about throwing it out. The rules will have to change. Now you have to wear a visor and you can't take off your helmet. Linesmen have to jump in and stop if players take their helmets off, now guys are thinking that they could break their hands while fighting. I think it should stay. Fans like to see goals and fights; these are two things your average fan likes to see.

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