Winter Classic to feature two former Michigan hockey players

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Mike Komisarek will return to Ann Arbor in a Maple Leafs jersey to play in the 2013 Winter Classic. Buy this photo

By Steve Zoski, Daily Sports Writer
Published June 25, 2012

Two former Michigan hockey players will be wearing blue again in Ann Arbor.

Mike Brown and Mike Komisarek will visit Tree City as National Hockey League players for the Toronto Maple Leafs when they play against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2013 NHL Winter Classic in the Big House on New Year’s Day.

Brown, a right-winger, played for Michigan from 2004-2005, while assistant captain and defenseman Komisarek played from 2001-2002. Neither player graduated from the University, leaving to pursue their NHL careers.

They will now have the opportunity to play at the University’s most hallowed sporting ground, just down the street from where they competed as Wolverines for coach Red Berenson, who hopes to catch up with the players sometime around the event.

In his two seasons as a Wolverine, Komisarek played in 81 games, scoring 15 goals, collecting 31 assists and racking up 147 penalty minutes.

Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens seventh overall in the 2001 NHL entry draft, Komisarek signed a five-year deal with the Leafs in 2009. He has played in 515 NHL games, scoring 14 goals, collected 63 assists, and has served 663 penalty minutes.

Brown has played six NHL seasons, spending two years with the Vancouver Canucks, two years with the Anaheim Ducks, and the last two seasons with Toronto. He was drafted 159th overall by Vancouver in the 2004 NHL entry draft, and spent several seasons playing for the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.

Komisarek, who was born in West Islip, New York, missed playing for the United States in the 2010 Winter Olympics due to an injury.

He played in the Cold War outdoor hockey game between Michigan and Michigan State held at Spartan Stadium in 2001, though, and is also remembered by Michigan hockey fans for the ‘Molly Incident’ and for using his size to deliver bone crushing hits.

Brown said he and Komisarek sometimes reminisce about their days at Michigan even though they didn't play at the same time.

“We talk about it every once in a while, we kind of joke around and we both played for the same coach,” Brown said. “Most of the guys that played with (Komisarek) I know, and some of the guys I played with he knows. We both went through the same experience, so it’s something we can always talk about.”

Brown said he is excited to play a professional hockey game in the storied Big House.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, I’ve been to a couple of the football games there,” he said. “It’s a legendary place, and to play a hockey game there is unbelievable. Especially playing in that town for college hockey, so I guess it means a lot.”

Brown noted that the matchup against the ‘Original Six’ rival Red Wings will be a memorable one, adding that the venue might not be the neutral site it is supposed to be.

“(The Red Wings) have a strong team and it’s (pretty much) their home town,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of experience against that team so it should be interesting.”

Brown said he’s pretty sure Leafs fans will cross the border and visit Ann Arbor in droves.

“It’s not too far of a drive, so with our dedicated fans, I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t support us.”

He also noted he enjoyed his time as a Wolverine, and is excited to return to the city and campus where he donned the block ‘M.’

“I loved playing for Michigan,” Brown said. “We always had a pretty good fan base, especially by the time I got there. I can’t complain, I know there's some hockey fans on campus, (and) it’ll be fun.”

Down the hall in his office, sitting across from a wall displaying pictures of former Michigan players in the NHL, is Berenson, who said he remembered coaching Brown and Komisarek.

The Wolverines’ legendary coach noted that Brown was a good player and a good person.

“Mike Brown was a real hard-working, hard-nosed forward,” Berenson said. “He left after his sophomore year. He’s worked his way back up the NHL. (He’s a) good kid — he comes back in the summers, we see him at the golf outing, he’s from Chicago originally but he seems to be a well-liked player in Toronto,” Berenson said.

Berenson said Brown and Komisarek will enjoy returning to Ann Arbor for hockey.

“(They’ll) love coming back here,” he said. “That’s the one thing about these players — you know they graduate, (and though) neither one of them graduated from Michigan, they left early, but I’m sure they’ll have fond memories when they come back.”

Berenson acknowledged it was disappointing to have lost Brown and Komisarek before graduation, especially when they didn’t make the jump to the NHL right away after being drafted.

“Brown, when he left he wasn’t ready to play in the NHL, so he did his time in the minors... before he ever made it up to Vancouver,” Berenson said. “Every one of them is a little different situation. You know, we take pride in our kids graduating, and for most of them that’s why we come to school, but nevertheless, Brown’s a good kid, and he’s a good player, a hard-nosed, hard-working player.”

Berenson noted while coaching him, it was evident Komisarek was clearly headed to the NHL one day.

“Komisarek, he was a terrific player here,” he said. “A top player from day one here at Michigan, and he was a player that you knew he was going to play in the NHL. Big hits, big shot, a big kind of defenseman at Michigan and he left to Montreal, he paid his dues in the minors, too, he didn't just step in in Montreal, and now he's with Toronto.”

Berenson said he remembers the ‘Molly incident.’

“I remember when we were playing St. Cloud,” he said. “St. Cloud had a mascot, and the mascot was kind of taunting our players. Now we were playing here, and he was taunting our players when they were coming on the ice. I don’t know if Komisarek knocked him down, or pushed him, or whatever, but you remember that...”

Berenson, who fondly remembers the Big Chill at The Big House — the outdoor hockey game between Michigan and Michigan State — said he didn’t know if he would be able to go to the Winter Classic.

“I hope I can get tickets to start with,” he said. “I mean, we’ll be playing in Detroit, in the GLI. We play two outdoor games on the 27th and 28th, and this game’s on the 1st, but number one is to get a ticket, and number two will be to see the building filled again for hockey.”

Berenson added the Winter Classic will take on a different look as a ‘neutral site’ between two NHL teams.

“People expect the building is going to be full, Berenson said. “But it will be great to see it filled again for hockey, and then with an NHL game on it will have a little different look to it. It won’t be a Michigan game, but you’re going to have a hardcore group from Toronto, and you’re going to have a hardcore group from Detroit, so it’s not a home game for anyone. The Michigan game was a home game for Michigan, and this will be a little different for both teams to play at a neutral site with both of them having a good fan base.”

Regarding the Red Wings and Maple Leafs alumni game that will be held at Comerica Park in Detroit, Berenson — who played for the Red Wings from 1970-75 — said it depends on Michigan’s schedule and the age limit.

“It depends when it is, and if there’s an age limit, we’ll see if anybody else over 70 is playing,” he said.

Berenson said he wouldn’t mind the NHL breaking the Big Chill record, adding that there could be another outdoor Michigan hockey game there in the future if the NHL breaks the record.

“I think it will be good,” he said. “I think the whole idea of the record is, it’s a record, this would be a world record not just for hockey, but the NHL, and I don’t know if there’s any venues in the world that could break it.

“The one good thing is that down the road, (Michigan athletic director) Dave Brandon might decide that we have to break the NHL record. … I hope that the game is a success, you know the one thing you really hope for is that they get a break in the weather (and) we got a break in the weather. We got lucky.”

Berenson said the NHL picked the right matchup for the game, even though the Red Wings and Maple Leafs have played each other much less since the Leafs moved to the Eastern Conference in 1993.

“I think it’s the right matchup,” he said. “I think it was a no-brainer when the NHL put this together, I mean they knew that the Toronto people would flock down, and there’s still a serious Original Six rivalry. I think they picked the right teams.”

Berenson said he remembered when the Wings and Leafs played an exhibition game in Yost in 1986.

“I remember that, and it was a humid day and the fog, we had to stop the game about 10 times because of the fog, we didn’t have the ventilation that we have now, so it wasn’t a good experience...but they got through it, but nobody on either team that would remember that,” Berenson said.

Berenson said he would enjoy catching up with Brown and Komisarek while they are in town.

“That’s always something you’d like to do, you’d like to say hi to those guys, and let them know we're watching,” Berenson said. “And they’ll probably want to stop over here... they’ll feel especially familiar coming back to Ann Arbor.”