VANCOUVER – The NHL lockout showed little sign of progress, so Mike Commodore decided to take action.
But his decision to sign a 25-game professional tryout offer with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs was not just an effort to salvage a season.
“I need to be playing, in my opinion, if I want to have a good chance of continuing my career,” he said while the Bulldogs visited the Abbotsford Heat for a pair of games last weekend. “So here I am.”
The 33-year-old Sherwood Park, Alta., native was among a long list of unrestricted NHL free agents who were left in limbo when the previous NHL collective bargaining agreement expired Sept. 15. Teams raced to sign younger, core assets before the old CBA expired, but took a pass on older UFAs until new financial parameters, notably the salary cap maximum and contracting rules, are established.
“Obviously, they were looking to lock up guys long-term with the expiry coming up,” he said. “But for guys like me, there wasn’t a real rush, and then the lockout started.”
Commodore split last season with the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now in his 13th pro season, and has played for almost as many teams in that span.
Since being drafted by New Jersey in the second round (42nd overall) in 1992, he has logged 484 career NHL regular-season games with the Devils, Calgary, Carolina, Ottawa, Columbus, Detroit and Tampa. He has also suited up in 53 playoff games.
He won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06, played for the Calgary Flames squad that fell in seven games in the 2003-04 Stanley Cup finals to Tampa Bay, and was a member of Canada’s world championship-winning squad in 2007.
He has 23 NHL career regular-season goals and 83 assists along with eight post-season points.
“The last two years for me, without getting too deep into it, haven’t really gone in my favour,” said Commodore, who is slated to receive a pro-rated salary of $105,000 after earning $1 million last season. “I haven’t played nearly as much as I would have liked, and it all happened very quick.”
Commodore, who is sought for his physical play and has racked up 683 career penalty minutes in the NHL, fell out of favour in Columbus after Scott Arniel took over as coach from Claude Noel in 2010-11. Shortly after getting rare time on the power play, the rearguard was dispatched to Springfield of the AHL for the rest of the season.
His career took a turn for the better the following summer as Columbus bought out the remainder of his five-year $18.75-million contract and he signed as a free agent with Detroit. But he struggled to get into the Red Wings lineup and was sent to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline.
“I loved Columbus. … I worked my (butt) off there, and how it ended, I don’t think was right at all,” he said. “But that’s how it works sometimes. In Detroit, I had a great time. Great guys. Really good organization, obviously. There just wasn’t an opportunity there for me.
“I signed there on July 1, an hour into free agency, on a time limit, and I was supposed to get an opportunity to play, and that didn’t happen. I was scratched til Christmas. I’m not sitting and complaining. It happens every year to somebody else.”
Now, he finds himself back in the league where he spent the last lockout, after spending 2004-05 with Calgary’s former Lowell Loch Monsters farm club. The six-foot-four and 225-pound blue-liner considered playing in Europe this season, but opted for a loop that he knew.
“I’m playing in front of people that I would like to see me play – NHL scouts, GMs and stuff like that,” he said. “I’m just trying to put myself in the best situation.”
Commodore finished even in the plus-minus department as Hamilton split a pair of games with the Heat. Playing his first game since last spring, he went minus-1 in a 5-1 loss, while racking up eight penalty minutes, all on minors. In the second game, he was on the ice as rookie Brendan Gallagher scored the only goal the Bulldogs needed in a 3-0 upset of the league-leading hosts.
In the process of trying to earn another NHL job, Commodore is showing Montreal Canadiens prospects like Gallagher and Jared Tinordi, both 20-year-old rookies, what it takes to have a long pro career.
“It’s different,” Commodore said. “It’s fun. I was 20 once, too, playing in the American Hockey League (with the Albany River Rats) my first year, and I remember older guys that were on my team and how they treated me. By no means do I think I’m old. But for hockey, I’ve been around for a little while.
“It’s just funny to listen to the guys talk. It’s nice to be around some young blood and some fresh players. I’m enjoying it so far.”
Abbotsford coach Sylvain Lefebvre said Commodore and former Edmonton Oiler Zack Stortini, who has been with the Bulldogs all season, serve as role models for younger players inside and outside the boards.
“They have NHL experience,” Lefebvre said. “They’ve gone through the rigours of schedules and travelling and all that. On the ice, not only do they bring their experience, but also they have poise. They don’t panic, and that’s important when you have a young team.”
How long Commodore’s minor-league stint will last remains to be seen. There is no guarantee he will stay beyond his 25-game trial period, and the Bulldogs could release him in the meantime. But, based on what happened after the 2004-05 NHL season was scrapped, he expects the current lockout to create opportunities — and hopes to get one.
“I don’t know where I’m going to end up,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea. Right now, all I’m worried about is putting it together down here.”