TORONTO - The Germans and Finns were squaring off that day, a pair of Maple Leaf draft picks on opposite sides.
"I remember all the other teammates on the national team were coming into the room after the first period and going 'Who the [expletive] is that guy?' and I just sat there and laughed," remembered Korbinian Holzer, then a member of the German national squad.
Meet Leo Komarov. Among the newest Leafs to join the roster this winter, the 25-year-old is certain to be a nuisance for opposing East foes and likely to emerge as a fan favourite in Toronto.
"He's a pain in the ass," smirked Carl Gunnarsson, who has competed against Komarov internationally, most recently at the 2011 World Championships. "He never stops working, he keeps going."
The five-foot-ten winger of Estonian descent (he grew up in Finland) is a pest in the simplest terms, the very sort of tick known to drive an opposing team wild with a constant battery of rough and tumble hockey. "This is a player who's in your face all night," said Holzer. "He knows which buttons he has to push to get you pissed off and get you going and get you off your game."
A 2006 selection, Komarov won the KHL championship as a part-time captain with Moscow Dynamo last year, intent on finally taking a crack at his NHL dream this past fall. The lockout quickly erased those plans. While he suited up in 14 games with the Marlies - totaling six goals and nine points - Komarov returned to Moscow in November (on loan) before re-joining the Leafs at training camp earlier this week.
"If I don't make it at least I tried," said Komarov of making it to the NHL.
Not an imposing or physically intimidating presence by any means, Komarov skates with pronounced exertion and hits with full intensity. "Those checks he finishes they hurt," said Holzer. "He's getting in there; he's throwing his full weight in there. He's nasty to play against. When the referee's not looking, he uses his stick a little bit to his advantage. He knows how to do it."
Frustrate, that is. Even amongst teammates.
Holzer recalled one instance at practice with the Marlies. Special teams were in the works, Komarov parked stubbornly in front of the net with the power-play unit. "I almost wanted to slash him in the face so bad because he had his [expletive] elbows up and he tried to slewfoot me all the time," Holzer smiled, remembering the incident. "It gets you off your game and you get pissed off at him. He makes it so good that even in practice you're getting rattled."
"We were going up against each other the other day," Gunnarsson added on the subject. "We're buddies, but he's like 'Screw you Gunnar'. I know it's just to get a laugh, but at the same time he's going hard and I like that. He likes to battle."
Fueling his efforts is an unwillingness to engage, chirp or even acknowledge conflict. "…he just walks away and that gets you more rattled and then this is the time when you take a stupid penalty most of the time," Holzer noted.
Komarov can sprinkle in some offence too - charging to the front of the net is his preferred route of attack - but it's the agitation role that earns him points with teammates. "You see that guy just pisses off the other team so much that they get off their game and your bench just loves that," Holzer said.
Lacking a certain edge to their roster under Randy Carlyle, the Leafs could benefit from the unique blend of skills that Komarov will bring to the table. While he's perhaps best suited to an energy role - with penalty killing duties - he's versatile enough to step up on a scoring line if the need arises - say with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. His raw, competitive game is sure to draw favour with Carlyle.
"He's just a pain in the ass," Gunnarsson repeated once more. "You need one of those guys on the team."