SOCHI, Russia – Leo Komarov's KHL club had one flight this season of the marathon variety, precisely the kind of tiresome experience that has the former Leaf winger reconsidering his career status.
“It took us 12 hours or something,” he said of the near 10,000 kilometre flight from Moscow to Vladivostok, quick to mention the one stop required to refuel along the way.
It may not be in Toronto, but Komarov seems to have his sights set on a return to the NHL next season.
The 27-year-old had his first (and long-desired) taste of the league in 2013 – calling it “probably the best time of my life” – before returning to Dynamo of the KHL last summer for reasons both financial and otherwise.
“I want to get back,” Komarov said of the NHL. “It's a big goal for me for next season. [But] I'm going to see how it's going to work out. Dynamo is playing pretty good right now so it's like everything is good there too, but I really enjoyed it in Toronto. It was really good.”
Komarov played in 42 games with the Leafs and was the pesky, agitating force the organization hoped he'd become when they drafted him in the sixth round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. But with the lure of a hefty one-year contract in Moscow and more opportunity ahead of the Olympics this winter, Komarov chose to leave Toronto after just one season.
“No hard feelings against Toronto,” he said. “I really enjoyed it. Everything was good, but Dynamo gave me a really good offer.”
More money than a cap-strapped Leafs brass was prepared or even able to pay this past summer. But just as important as the dollars gained by returning to Russia was the chance to play big minutes with a powerhouse squad in Dynamo. And with keen hopes of representing Finland for the first time on the Olympic stage here in Sochi, Komarov wanted to ensure his best was on display as often as possible.
“I need to play a lot to make this team for Olympics and I knew I'm going to get a lot of ice-time in Dynamo,” said Komarov following practice with a trimmed down Finnish Olympic squad, NHL players yet to arrive on this day. “You go in the NHL and play on the fourth line – five, six minutes – it's hard. I wanted to make 100 per cent sure that I'm going to make the team.
“Maybe the contract situation was a little bit [a reason] too. It was a hard decision, like I want to play in NHL, but what happened happened.”
Though he is quite at home in the KHL, where he's played for four seasons now, Komarov certainly enjoyed the upgrade in lifestyle associated with the NHL. From the lavish hotels to comfortable charter planes to do-it-all training staffs to visits in New York, Montreal and Boston, the NHL just has more to offer than the league in Russia, up-and-coming as it is.
“It's like the best thing that can happen to a hockey player to be there,” said Komarov of playing in the NHL, remaining in touch with current Leafs Phil Kessel, Frazer McLaren, Tyler Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin. “It's so nice.”
Toronto was also a more desirable resting place for his Finnish girlfriend.
Unlike Komarov, who speaks four languages including Russian, Swedish and Finnish, his better half has nothing to fall back on as far as communication is concerned, this in a place where English is rarely spoken or understood.
“She liked Toronto really much, did whatever she wanted by herself there, but in Moscow she always needs me around,” said Komarov, noting the challenge of simply traveling around the city without knowing the Russian language.
An unrestricted free agent this summer, Komarov is open to returning to the Leafs and the city of Toronto, but he appears more focused on simply getting back into the NHL however possible. Yet to receive any offers he remains hopeful about his prospects with a fallback plan of good money and opportunity in the KHL.
“They've got good money in KHL, but it's not all about the money either,” he said. “NHL is the best league you can play in.”