But the family passion for hockey persisted. Concussions cut short older son Paul's career, but Mike thrived. He could score and came to maturity just when the Oilers were seeking a centre, even if, listed generously at 5-foot-10, he was less than imposing.
So, on June 26, 1999, the team made the hometown boy its third-round draft pick, perhaps hoping for the second coming of Gretzky, who used to pick up young Mike after practice. "You might as well take the chances on the kids in your own back yard ... If they do pan out, it's a good story," says ex-Oiler Kevin Lowe, also a family friend and the team's coach at the time.
Comrie's camera-shy father was leery but stayed quiet. "I knew there'd be lots of pressure, obviously," he now says, "but I mean, he grew up there and he wanted to play there."
After he was drafted, Comrie left the University of Michigan without graduating, meaning the Oilers had only so long to sign him. He switched to junior hockey across the border in B.C., scoring two points a game and becoming a fixture on Edmonton newscasts.
He acknowledges he "forced" the team's hand: "It was my childhood dream to play for the Edmonton Oilers. I was so excited to play there, I didn't even really think, didn't think anything. I thought I'd always be an Oiler at that stage in my career. Then, three years later ... " his voice trails off. "A lot happens when you're an athlete."
He had a decent start and an exceptional second year, but found himself under extreme scrutiny. According to a source on the team, "He says, 'Half the guys wanted my autograph and the other half wanted to beat the shit out of me.' "
And he may have done himself few favours. A bouncer at a local club contends that "the pressure of being a hometown kid was made worse by his poor attitude," describing how Comrie, angry at being asked to remove his hat, got into a shouting match and boasted about how much money he was making.
Today, a chastened Comrie acknowledges that "I felt very lucky to be ... given the opportunity to play for the Oilers, and then it started to wear on me. I started feeling claustrophobic. I'd go to the grocery store and I had to be 'on.' "
He says this over lunch in Los Angeles, where "I felt I could get away," even though as he eats, he is on the lookout for photographers. There are none, perhaps because after his morning skate, Comrie hopped in his $280,000 Aston Martin and headed not to some trendy hot spot but a strip mall for Quizno's and a Starbucks latte.
When the big initial contract was up after three years, he'd earned his bonuses and collected just over $10.5-million, unheard of for a third-round pick. The Oilers didn't want to shell out that kind of money again, but the negotiations never got serious.
Now the team's president of hockey operations, Lowe says: "I think Mike felt that it'd be better if he just played somewhere else." But what the public saw was a standoff. The team started the season without Comrie, and bitter rumours surfaced about his relationship with goalie Tommy Salo's wife. He calls them "completely untrue," but instead of defending himself, he, like his father, stayed silent and, says one family friend, "The city just turned on Mike."
Looking back, Comrie calls the situation "surreal" but insists Edmonton is "a great city. I just felt I needed to explore other things. And at that age, I didn't really explain that."
A trade broke the deadlock, sending him to Philadelphia, which soon flipped him to Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes. He also had stints in Ottawa and with the New York Islanders. But a year after he left Edmonton, his father sold his managing interest as The Brick went public, packed up his second wife and their two sons, and headed to Los Angeles, where his two brothers and Mike had already taken up residence.Report Typo/Error