The small "KK" sticker on the back left of his helmet and a quick sign of the cross he makes with his stick on the ice after every national anthem is all that Mike Komisarek
does publicly to honor his late mother, Kathy.
Privately, every stride the Montreal Canadiens
defenseman takes on NHL ice, every shot he blocks, hit he delivers and interview he gives is all with mom in mind.
Komisarek is an All-Star today because of the more than 1.3 million online votes he got to be a starter for the Eastern Conference. Kathy Komisarek's selflessness is the reason why fans even know who he is.
"She was taking me to hockey practices at 5 o'clock in the morning," Komisarek recalled of his mom, who died from pancreatic cancer on Nov. 29, 2005 at the age of 51. "I'd wake her up and she would have to drive me to special skating practices, so I'd make her a cup of coffee and grab a pillow for her. She would bring my change of clothes for school and we went straight from practice to school. I was fortunate to have the mom that I had."
It's been more than three years since cancer stole Kathy Komisarek from the world. She was there every step of the way as her son developed from a longshot kid from Long Island into an All-American at the University of Michigan, a seventh overall draft pick and, eventually, into an NHL player.
Komisarek, all 6-foot-4 and 243 pounds of him, now likes to believe Kathy hasn't missed his development into an All-Star. He likes to believe she's watching from above the Bell Centre, right where she'll be Sunday, Jan. 25, when Komisarek is announced as a starter.
She earned her season ticket.
"After the national anthem I always make the sign of the cross with my stick and I look up and let her know that I'm thinking of her," Komisarek said. "I say to myself that I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her."
When Kathy became ill, Komisarek did whatever he could to be by her side. That meant early Sunday morning flights from Montreal into New York. Return trips later that night. Canadiens owner George N. Gillett Jr. offered up his private plane, but Komisarek never took him up on it.
Komisarek traveled to Long Island every Sunday in the fall and early winter of 2005 until Kathy couldn't fight anymore. He was by her bedside when she died.
"We play every Saturday night in Montreal and I would take the 6 o'clock flight home Sunday morning and come back Sunday night," Komisarek said. "It wasn't easy. I was in Montreal physically, but my heart and everything else was back home."
Kathy never saw her boy score an NHL goal, which he did for the first time less than three months after she passed. A laminated ticket stub from that game was put by Kathy's tombstone, but Mike has scored only 10 times since. Mom never got to see him play a full NHL season. She couldn't see him become an All-Star.
Then again, maybe, just maybe, she died knowing all this was going to happen. After all, her boy's rise goes hand in hand with the Komisarek family story, which is one of daring chances, perseverance, hope and blue-collar hard work.
Roman and Kathy were born in Poland, but soon after they married, Roman, then 24, immigrated to the United States alone via a cargo ship he was working on. He sought a better life for the newlyweds and the family they wanted to start.
"My dad came over and didn't know anybody," Komisarek said. "He really just had the clothes on his back and didn't have much money. He got on his feet, got a job and got enough money to bring my mom over."
Roman started working on cars in Queens. He soon moved further into Long Island, to Lindenhurst, and opened an auto-body shop. Kathy came over two and a half years later and on Jan. 19, 1982 Mike was born. Two years later Joanne came along.
"My father raised me the same way we raised our children -- family value was first before anything else and we worked together," Roman told NHL.com. "We tried to accomplish something. It wasn't easy, but we did it."
Perhaps part of Mike's passion for hockey was born out of Roman's past.
Roman used to tell Mike stories that he would "break branches off of trees that looked like hockey sticks and play with them." Mike lets dad tell the tales, but he never actually believed they were totally truthful.
"I think it's kind of farfetched," he said with a smile and a laugh. "He said he used to skate when he was younger, but I have seen him skate."
"I played hockey, but never on a big team," Roman countered. "We had a group and we played in town, but I love hockey. I skate even today."
Amazingly, Roman is only 5-foot-7. When he was Mike's age, he weighed 150 pounds. Kathy was also only 5-7. These are not the genes from which you would expect to find a strapping young hockey player.
"I had big uncles on my mom's side that were 6-4 or 6-5," Mike Komisarek
said. "My dad is a short, little, stocky guy."
"He had a good appetite and he was always moving," Roman explained. "We had a big backyard and every time he came home from school we were playing until the sun went down. I was at the shop for 12 hours and then I had to come home and play with him, and he was never tired. He was that kind of kid."
Big or small, Mike Komisarek
would never have made it this far if he didn't possess Roman's same will, work ethic and heart.
"I came to this country with nothing and I tried to accomplish as much as I could through hard work," Roman said. "I worked 12 hours a day for so many years and Michael would see that. He worked hard. He would study. He didn't play too much with the kids on the street. He was a hard-working kid and he always had a strong head on his shoulders. He always listened."
That he's an All-Star almost defies logic, considering Komisarek has only 11 goals and 40 assists in 321 NHL games. He has just 1 goal and 3 assists in 26 games this season.
If a broadcaster uses the word "boom" when talking about Komisarek, it's usually because of a hit he laid, not a shot he took. If Komisarek winds up on the ice, it's usually because he's sprawling out his 76-inch body to stop a shot before it gets close to Montreal goalies Carey Price
or Jaroslav Halak
Komisarek led the NHL in blocked shots last season with 227. He was second with 266 hits. Even though he missed 16 games with a bum shoulder, he has already blocked 91 shots this season. He's been credited with the 82 hits.
"My team needs me to block shots, play physical and keep the puck out of the net," Komisarek said. "That's the way I contribute. Some guys do other things, but that's my role, my job and something I enjoy doing. It's not a glamorous thing, but it's effective."
It's just not the style that usually turns someone into an All-Star, but Komisarek's more than 1.3 million fan votes suggest otherwise.
Mom would be proud. Mike Komisarek
knows that she is.
"My wife was a very sensitive lady and I know for sure she would cry from happiness to see what he has accomplished in his life," Roman said. "She was a big, big, big hockey fan and she put a big effort into getting him to where he is now."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org