Tuesday, 19 November 2013

"I would have loved to have stayed in Montreal" - A visit with Mike Commodore

Perhaps it was destiny that a player with the nickname ``Commie`` would end up playing hockey in Russia`s Kontinental Hockey League.

Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta`s Mike Commodore is a name and face that is very familiar to hockey fans. In close to 500 NHL games, the big rugged red head has put up 106 points and 683 Penalty minutes. 

Commodore became a household name when he grew out his red locks and beard in two consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup finals. As a relative newcomer to the National Hockey League in 2003-2004 (he had a short stint with the New Jersey Devils previously) Commodore would help the Calgary Flames head to an eventual loss to Tampa Bay in the championship round.

The 2004-2005 NHL Lockout saw Commodore head back to Lowell of the American Hockey League before being traded to Carolina in the off-season. In a great personal Triumph, Mike Commodore would not only make a return trip to the Cup finals, but this time he would become a Stanley Cup champion.

Eventually, he would end up in Columbus where he would play some of his best hockey forming a number one shut down pair with Jan Hejda. Columbus Dispatch beat writer Aaron Portzline: ``Commodore was a really good player in his first year with the Blue Jackets. Big, physical player who was loud enough and bold enough to spark a moribund dressing room.`

Then Scott Arniel happened. Arniel clashed with several players in the dressing room and seemed to target Commodore from the start. You could tell from the start that it wasn't going to end well.

I've been surprised the last two seasons that Commodore can't get a job in the NHL. Pretty good player.``

Last season during the lockout, Hab-fans may have noticed Commodore patrolling the blue line for the Bulldogs in Hamilton and even at an intra-squad scrimmage at the Bell Centre. He didn`t stick with the Habs, and is now plying his trade with Admiral Vladivostock of the KHL.

I recently had a very lengthy chat with Mike Commodore all about his career, his time in Hamilton, Coach Sylvain Lefebvre, the KHL, the Stanley Cup and everything in between.  

Growing up in Fort Saskatchewan, just outside of Edmonton, is it safe to say you were a fan of the Edmonton Oilers growing up?
To be honest I was actually a Calgary Flames fan growing up. I have always been the type that cheers for the underdog, and when I was growing up in the 80's the Oilers were dominant....so I found myself cheering for the Flames.

I'm surprised to hear you were a flames fan growing up, did you have a favourite player?
No. I really didn't have a favorite player. I just liked the Flames.
It must have been great being a young kid watching the Oilers dynasty of the 80's from such close proximity, do you have any vivid memories about it?
Yes the Oilers were most definitely dominant in the 80's for sure....but I was pretty young to remember any specific moments. 

The 2 moments that I do remember from growing up regarding the Oilers; I remember my dad taking me to an all-star game there, I think it was an all-star game anyways...sure seemed like it. 

And like everyone in Alberta and maybe hockey in general I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when Gretzky was traded to LA.
How did you first fall in love with the game of hockey?
To be honest I don't really remember exactly when I fell in love with hockey. I always just really enjoyed competing and playing sports. Almost any sport. Athletics was always something I was pretty decent at. Because of where I grew up, if you liked to play sports it was hockey in the winters, and I chose baseball in the summers. That was how I spent my childhood and teens.

Were you always a defenceman? Did you try to emulate anyone in particular?
Yes I was always a defenceman. Looking back I wish I would have played some forward as a kid....it might have helped my skating. I didn't really try to emulate anyone but I did like Adam Foote as a player.

Do you remember the first time you went to see an NHL game?
I think I remember my first game...it was definitely an Oilers game, but I can't remember any details other then I know my dad took me. 

What was it like being traded from New Jersey to your childhood team the Calgary Flames?
haha...the trade to Calgary was perfect! 

I love the city of Calgary, I still spend most of my summers in Calgary. And I really can't say enough good things about the Calgary Flames and how they treated me. I am very grateful to the Calgary Flames. Although I didn't play many games in Calgary, I was with the organization a little over 2 years, and it was really the turning point in my career. 

You reached the Stanley Cup Finals shortly after being called up by the Flames, what do you remember about that?

haha, by the time I reached the Finals in 2004 with Calgary I was so excited and having so much fun I wasn't sure it was real! 

Throughout your playing career, and even beforehand, you've been known to grow out your hair, and then shave it for charity - particularly the Jimmy V Foundation for cancer research, is there a reason this particular charity strikes a chord for you? 
I shaved my head a couple times for charity. The Jimmy V foundation was in 2006. 

I shaved it for the Jimmy V foundation first off because it's an excellent charity, and secondly I wanted to keep it local in Carolina so Jimmy V was a perfect fit. 

If it wasn't always the Jimmy V fund, which other charities did the money raised go to?

The time I shaved my head while I was with the Flames the money went to cancer research and it was through my mom's high school. 

It was one of those things where lets say the science teacher says "Hey if you kids raise $100 I will shave my head". So after we beat Vancouver in the first round my mom asked me if I would like to be a part of it once the playoffs were over so I said yes. 

With your notoriety for your Hair and Bathrobes, have you ever thought about your own line of Men's hygiene products? Seems to have worked out for a certain "Violent Gentleman".
haha, Yes George Parros is a good man, a very smart man, and I see his line is doing well. haha, I am not sure how well my own line of hygiene products would sell....you don't see too many red head models selling anything these days. Or ever.

Red head could work. I envision an affro'd, bathrobe clad redhead advertising for shaving products in a whimsical style similar to the old spice ads.  Maybe throw in a borscht reference or two for fun!

You ended up being vindicated by winning the Stanley Cup the very next season, but how hard was it not being able to come back with Calgary after coming so close? There must have been some sense of "unfinished business"
Yes when I first got traded to Carolina I was disappointed. Like I said I really liked Calgary and I thought we would have a good team. So it was tough for a couple days....until I realized that there probably wouldn't have been any space for me in Calgary and getting traded to Carolina was the best thing for me. 
I can't recall who said it, but following your Stanley Cup win in 2006, it was said that your opening round victory against Montreal was the most difficult series you had. Do you think that statement is accurate? 
That's a tough question to answer. Was it tough? Yes it was. Montreal won the first 2 games in Carolina. So we were going to Montreal down 2-0...not promising. But then we responded and won 4 straight games. But it's really tough for me to rank the toughest. It took us 7 games to beat Buffalo in the conference finals and 7 games to beat the Oilers to win the Cup. So I will be diplomatic and say those 3 series were all equally very tough! haha. 

Which do you think affected the outcome of that series more - the emergence of Cam Ward or the injury to Saku Koivu? Had Koivu not been injured, and/or had Cam Ward not stepped in (for the ill Martin Gerber) to start game 3, does the result remain the same? 
haha...another tough question. 

Honestly all I can say is this....we had a REALLY good team that year. For the entire year. After we got down 2-0 to Montreal I think as a team the feeling was "We are way too good and had too good of a year to go out like this"....and then we turned it on. But in saying that....Cam standing on his head sure helped. haha. 
Going into the Stanley Cup final in 2006, what if anything did you draw on from your experiences with Calgary in 2004?
I did draw on my 2004 final for sure...but at the same time it was 2 completely different scenarios for me. In Calgary in the finals I was playing very minimal minutes...and in Carolina I was playing 20 minutes a night. What I did draw from the Calgary finals was that I knew I had been there before...so I knew what to expect both on the ice and off. And I do remember waking up the morning of game 7 in Carolina and thinking "I lost 1 game 7 in Calgary...I am not going to let that happen again". Lucky for me it worked out.
Was the Final in 2006 a different animal as a result of having played with the same teammates all season long as opposed to being a late season call-up? If so, how? 
Yes it was 2 completely different roles for me. 

In 2004 I spent the first half the year playing for Lowell Lock Monsters (Calgary's AHL team) got called up right before the all star break...blew my shoulder out in my second or third game...missed 2 months, then came back and played the last couple regular season games in Calgary, and then playoffs. 

In Calgary I was more of a depth guy that caught a break due to injuries in the playoffs and I got my chance. 

In Carolina I was there all year...and played significantly more....but you know what, both were very rewarding experiences. I cherish both.
Do you think winning the cup in '06 gave you a greater sense of accomplishment because you came so close two years prior? Or, were they completely unrelated? 
Yes I think I did get a greater sense of accomplishment in 2006 because of 2004. 

In 2004 we came so close. Like REALLY close...and just fell a little short. When it was over it was a tough pill to swallow. You never know...lots of guys never get a chance to play in the Cup finals...I did...you never know if it will happen again. So when it happened the very next NHL season that was special. 

For fans outside of the market, particularly those in Canada who know nothing about the city, what can you tell us about Columbus? The team, the fans, the city itself. 
In my opinion Columbus is a kind of a hidden gem. I loved it there. Its a really good city. Although the way things turned out with the Blue Jackets, the reason and terms I left on still pisses me off, I can't blame the city of the fans. The fans there are fantastic. My first year there when we made the playoffs the fans were AWESOME.  Great rink too. I can think of a couple NHL teams who could use that model of arena and area when building a new rink.

2008-2009 was a very good season for you personally on the ice, and you helped the Blue Jackets to their first (and to date only) playoff appearance, is that a point of pride for you? 
2008-2009 was a good year for the Blue Jackets and for me. Yes we got swept in the first round by Detroit, but overall the year was a smashing success for the Blue Jackets. And yes I am proud of that season. Its really too bad we couldn't build off of it. 

For me personally it was my best regular season as a professional. Statistically my second year in Carolina was better...but overall 2008-2009 was my best year. 

Unfortunately everything was downhill after that and nobody remembers how I played my first year there. All anyone brings up is the negative. Like I said earlier, it still really pisses me off how things ended up between me and the Blue Jackets.

What was the buzz like around the team during that season/playoff run? 
That year I would say things were pretty normal until the end of January. 

People need to understand how Columbus works. First off Ohio State Football is #1 and always will be. The Blue Jackets could run off 4 consecutive Stanley cups like the Islanders back in the day and Ohio State football will still be king. And I am definitely not saying that like its a bad thing. It isn't at all. 

So up until the end of January (the end of Buckeye football season) normalcy for the Blue Jackets was weekday games with average crowds, weekend crowds packed. Or close to it. Once January hit that year we were doing ok but not great....but then we went on a tear in January...I think we went 14-2 or something like that. After that the rink was jammed every night and people were excited because they knew we had a good team. 

People were really excited for the playoffs....unfortunately it was a short run. We came out in the first period against Detroit in Detroit on fire. We were all over them. It could have easily been 3-0. Unfortunately for us...Osgood made some huge saves and after that Detroit took over.  
You mentioned that it still irks you how things ended in Columbus, how DID things end over there?
Here is how it went down in Columbus. 

Scott Arniel came into Columbus as a first time NHL head coach, and he came in there loaded with jealousy and arrogance. His mindset was "now I am an NHL coach and I am going to get even for any shortcomings in my playing career". 

Scott Arniel played pro hockey a long time at the NHL and AHL level. Scott Arniel didn't think he was paid enough for the time he put in. He didn't like guys that weren't married. Because in his words "I wish you guys had a wife and kids when you came to the NHL so you know how much they cost". He actually said that in a meeting. So needless to say if you were single with no kids (which I was and am) and you were making good money (I was the highest paid defenseman in the organization) you were in trouble. Big trouble.  

I broke my thumb the first game of the year in a fight....missed 6 weeks. Came back and was playing some of the best hockey of my career....my stats for that year finished at 20 games played, 2 game winning goals, 3 assists, 44 pims, and -8. 

I was playing against top lines...the only stat that doesn't look good is the plus minus. Pitt beat us 9-1 one night and I was -4. Other then that 1 game my plus minus was just like everyone elses on the team. Anyways...I was playing well....then he scratched me 10 games in a row. Refused to meet with me. Wouldn't play me. The team was getting spanked left and right while I was being scratched...still wouldn't play me. 

2 reasons.....he was jealous that I was single and making good cash...and secondly he is extremely arrogant and wanted more power in the organization. By scratching me who looks bad? Well first off I do. And secondly the GM looks terrible cause he is the one that signed me to be the highest paid defenseman on the team. So what ends up happening? I want a trade so Arniel kicks me off the team, I get bought out - and no matter what the reason is a buyout is a black mark against you. And its been downhill from that point forward.

I know it sounds kinda crazy....but I put a lot of time into this and those are the reasons. If I was playing like shit I would say so. I was a pretty good player in Columbus. My first year was great, my second year I played the whole year with groin problems, and the third year arrogant jealous Scott Arniel got hired and that's the end of the story. 

The next season he tried the same tactics with Derrick Brassard, another single guy making good money, but fortunately for Derrick - Arniel got canned before he could finish him off. 

Look at Scott Arniel's coaching record. Its awful. And he had good players.

During last season's NHL lockout, you had a chance to play with some of the Montreal Canadiens prospects. What can you tell us about them? Is there anyone who stood out on the ice that maybe Habs fans have yet to see up in the show? 
I am glad I decided to play in Hamilton. And thankful for the opportunity. I had a good time there and it was definitely worth it for me. 

As far as prospects...god we were SO young. The youngest team in the AHL I believe. Its hard for me to pick out guys at this moment, I think a few of them have played a few games in Montreal this season. But since I am a defenseman I will just give you a couple defenseman that I think have a chance to excel at the NHL level. I really liked Tinordi, Beaulieu and Pateryn. Its no secret that they are good players though. I think everyone in Montreal knows that. 

Anyone who follows your Twitter account can see that you have a bit of a relationship with Brendan Gallagher. One would assume it started in Hamilton, do you keep an eye on him, or the team in general?
I like Gallagher, I met him in Hamilton. I like him a lot as a person and a player. Yes I do follow the Canadiens...but not so much the wins and losses, I like following the guys I played with in Hamilton last year. I check box scores once a day I would say. Vladivostok is 19 hours ahead of Montreal...so needless to say I am not watching any games. 

The Canadiens clearly have a lot of defensemen in the system, do you feel you were given a fair shot to make the team out of training camp last season? Would you have liked to stay?
The Montreal Canadiens treated me very well. I have no complaints.  Obviously I would have loved to have stayed in Montreal but that wasn't going to happen. 

Look with the lockout last year I don't even consider that a training camp. We had four practices and one inter-squad game. The team had seven d-men on 1-way contracts and that was before Subban signed. So 8 d-men on 1 ways. There was no space for me. Even if I played like Larry Robinson in that inter-squad game they wouldn't have kept me! 
An often listed criticism against the Habs is that they are too small, and not tough enough. Toughness and size are two attributes that you bring in abundance, do you feel you could address those needs for the Habs one day down the road?
Could I address those needs if that's what Montreal is looking for? Yes I could. But I have a long ways to go before I even think about that. I have been buried by 2 coaches in the last couple years, and my battle is to prove that I can still play. 

I am playing in the KHL, my focus is to play as well as I can here and see what happens.

How did you like playing for Sylvain Lefebvre in Hamilton? How did he compare to some of the other Coaches you've had to play for?
I liked Sylvain Levebvre. I think he's a good person and will be a good coach at the NHL level someday if that's what he wants to do. But he was a rookie head coach. So I think he has somethings to learn, which is normal for a rookie in any profession. There are some things that I would have done differently for sure.
Do you have a favourite Coach (head or assistant) that you've played for? Why?
There are a bunch of Head coaches that I really liked and thought were good. Dean Blais, Larry Robinson, Daryl Sutter, Peter Laviolette, Ken Hitchcock come to mind. But if I had to pick 1 favorite head coach I will pick Tom Rowe. Tom Rowe was my assistant coach in Lowell in 03/04, and the Head Coach in Lowell in the lockout year 04/05. I really can't say enough about what he did for my career. He was a tough, no bullshit guy, but if you worked hard for him he had your back no matter what. He turned my career around. Thank you Tom.  

Think he'll make a good NHL head coach one day?
Yes I think Tom would make a great NHL head coach if that's what he wants to do.

How are you liking the KHL?
I am enjoying the KHL. Its a very good league with very good players. It is also very different from what I am used to. But that being said it should be different. This is a completely different country and way of life. I came over here with an open mind looking to play some hockey and find some life experiences. I haven't been disappointed.

It is clearly a different brand of hockey, are there things you like better about the game in Russia that you feel the NHL could learn from, and/or vice versa?
It is very different. Other then the basics of shooting, passing and skating it is completely different. 

To answer your question...without a doubt I think the NHL should adopt the point system the KHL uses. 3pts for a regulation win, 2pts for overtime win or shootout win, 1 point for overtime or shootout loss. I personally believe it is significantly better. A team should be rewarded for winning in regulation. And the 3 point win really makes things interesting in the standings...even if your team is near the bottom in the standings...they can make up points fast with regulation wins. Also I don't think winning a game in a shootout should be worth the same as winning a game in regulation. To me the KHL system makes more sense. 

The 1 thing that really sticks out for me that the KHL could adopt is a little more of a NHL way of coaching. More teaching and systems taught in the KHL would be great for the teams and the players. Like I said its just different here. Here the attitude is "the players are professionals, they should know how to play". Well I have been a pro for 14 years and I know I could still use some learning. 

It's funny that you mention the KHL needing to adopt more of the NHL approach to coaching, with more systems. Younger players loathe systems, especially the creative guys. 

The stereotype we often hear about players coming from Russia is that they are more skilled/creative/less structured, do you think that's a product of their development?

Does the lesser emphasis on structure allow them to be more creative in honing their skills?
That's a very good question. And I guess the answer has to be yes to both those questions. But it would be really nice if you could introduce just a little bit of structure here. I mean I think you can still be creative and be responsible defensively. Pavel Datsyuk figured it out. 

If you happen to win the Gagarin Cup this season, would it be a new source of pride to be the only player to have won both the Gagarin and Stanley Cups?
Would I really be the only person to do that? If so that's cool. I like winning and have enjoyed my share of it. If I could add a Gagarin Cup to my resume I would be very proud. This is a really good league.

If another player has already won both cups, I couldn't find a note of it anywhere, so I believe you'd be the first.

At the end of the day, no matter how many teams a player has played for they always identify strongly with one above all else. Who would that team be for you, and why?
The Carolina Hurricanes. I won a Stanley Cup in Carolina. I played more NHL games there then I did for any other team. The 2 and a half years I spent there I played well. Its a shame I didn't get the opportunity to play there longer. A lot longer. 

It sounds to me like you still feel like there's some unfinished business in both Carolina and Columbus, is that fair? If you had the opportunity to finish that business it only one, which would it be and why?
I don't know about unfinished business....we won in Carolina....it just would have been nice for me if instead of trading me they would have signed me long term. 

And in Columbus that whole situation is sad. I really liked it there and I worked my ass off there, I was good in the community. I enjoyed some success but was kicked out and bought out by an unsuccessful, arrogant, jealous first year head coach halfway through my contract. Now as a result I am remembered as being a huge bust in Columbus. 

I hate complaining and everyone has their "I got screwed" story....but honestly its a joke how I was treated in Columbus by Scott Arniel. I don't think I deserved that. 

Have you ever actually seen a Commodore 64? (I owned an Amiga when I was a kid - it was an offshoot of the Commodore, it was a fun computer with a great Indiana Jones game!)
hahaha....I have seen a Commodore 64, a long time ago. Check them out on twitter though....Commodore 64 computers are making a comeback!

Maybe you should be the new Commodore 64 spokesman. Have you got one?
Don't have one but you are right I should get one. 

Thanks very much for taking the time, wishing you all the best in the KHL this season on your way to a Gagarin Cup and looking forward to seeing your new line of bathrobes in the NHL again one day!

For more from Mike Commodore, follow him on Twitter: @commie22


  1. Great article! I had the privilege to interview Commodore last season when he was with the Texas Stars. He's a class act!

  2. Hi there Ian! I was actually just reading up on a few of your posts and had quick question about your blog. I was hoping you could email me back when you get the chance, thanks~


  3. I never understood why Mike was benched by Arniel in Columbus... while Mike's comments seem a little "sharp" I gotta believe they are true. Mike was one of those charismatic guys that was a great interview, called it like he saw it, and apparently was made to pay the price by an "arrogant" coach. Anytime a contract like that goes south it is a bust, but there's plenty of people in Columbus that don't blame that on Mike.

  4. Commodore sounds like a petulant baby who refuses to take any responsibility for his play. First of all, as Bluehirts United points out (http://rangersunlimited.com/2013/12/07/mike-commodore-blasts-ranger-assistant-scott-arniel), he WASN'T playing against teams' top lines. Far from it, in fact.

    Second, if it was such a gross injustice perpetrated against him, then how come he hasn't been able to get his career back on track? Since leaving CLB, he failed to stick with two NHL teams, then got sent down to the AHL and is now an average at best player in the KHL. Could it be that Arniel just recognized that he wasn't a very good player anymore? No, no. It must be because Commodore was single.

    What a crock.


  5. Commodore was a really good player in his first year with the Blue Jackets, joining Jan Hejda on the No. 1 shut-down pair. Big, physical player who was loud enough and bold enough to spark a moribund dressing room.

    Year 2 was a struggle. He'd spent the previous summer doing some new workout routine, and while he was in shape he wasn't in hockey shape. This is how it was explained to me. He never really got going that year, and it became a point of contention.

    Then Scott Arniel happened. Arniel clashed with several players in the dressing room and seemed to target Commodore from the start. You could tell from the start that it wasn't going to end well. It got personal. More than anything, I believe it was a total lack of respect in each direction.

    I've been surprised the last two seasons that Commodore can't get a job in the NHL. Pretty good player. Maybe a third-pair guy, but I still think he can play.

  6. http://rangersunlimited.com/2013/12/07/mike-commodore-blasts-ranger-assistant-scott-arniel/

    The statistics Jarred Sexton shows in his article are from the 2010-2011 season. That season is the season where Scott Arniel was the head Coach in Columbus. While they may help prove your point, when the player discusses being a shutdown defenceman and playing the best hockey of his career, he is specifically talking about the 2008-2009 season.

    While your points may be entirely valid in order to have a fair understanding of how the ice time and usage of the player changed under the coach you need to look at how he was utilized before the coach arrived there.

    Aaron Portzline who covers the Blue Jackets for the Columbus Dispatch newspaper had this to offer on that 08-09 season "Commodore was a really good player in his first year with the Blue Jackets, joining Jan Hejda on the No. 1 shut-down pair. Big, physical player who was loud enough and bold enough to spark a moribund dressing room".

    Mike Commodore, the player in question said that "2008-2009 was a good year for the Blue Jackets and for me. Yes we got swept in the first round by Detroit, but overall the year was a smashing success for the Blue Jackets. And yes I am proud of that season. Its really too bad we couldn't build off of it.

    For me personally it was my best regular season as a professional. Statistically my second year in Carolina was better...but overall 2008-2009 was my best year."

    If you read the interview in its entirety, Commodore and I discuss a great deal of things. I firmly believe that he feels he was mistreated by Scott Arniel, but I also firmly believe that he is enjoying his time in Russia right now. The point of the interview was not to attack Scott Arniel.

    I have not spoken to Scott Arniel as to me it's only a small part of a broader focused interview on the game of hockey and one man's perspective on it.

    That man offers his opinions on his experiences. I think it's entirely fair or valid to disagree with his opinions, but I think as hockey fans in general we should be applauding the man for speaking out in great detail and with great candor on a great many topics. He had very little to gain from granting me an interview. I encourage everyone to read it as he does speak on many things, including his time in the American Hockey League, The Kontinental Hockey League, his love for Columbus & Carolina and much else.

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