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Josh Wingrove

Beauty and the brick Add to ...

'Don't take a picture of this," pleads Mike Comrie, looking nervously over his shoulder as he lights several candles in his living room. Designer blankets bearing a giant "H" adorn the chairs and couches.



"My street cred is going to go down," he says, with a grin.



The candles and blankets, as well as the bodyguard and pets (four dogs, two cats) are all part of newlywed life for Comrie. Three weeks ago, he married his girlfriend of three years. They had just enough time for a quick honeymoon - four days across the Mexican border in ritzy Cabo San Lucas - before rushing back to Los Angeles. He was in training for the National Hockey League season, although he had no idea where he would play.



A decade in the league has seen him with five teams, some more than once, but he is still most closely associated with Edmonton. It's where he grew up and started his career with great fanfare, signing a multimillion-dollar contract live on Hockey Night in Canada.



Much of the fuss was because the Comrie name is almost synonymous with Alberta's capital, where father Bill had made his fortune by transforming the family furniture store into The Brick, now considered Canada's leading retailer of home furnishings with more than $1.2-billion in revenue last year.



But those ties no longer bind. Comrie has followed a path all too familiar to hockey fans in his hometown. Like his childhood idol and family friend Wayne Gretzky, he left Canada for sunny California and marriage to a film star.





Then the similarity fades. Gretzky wed second-tier actress and pinup Janet Jones before he was sold to the L.A. Kings to help build the NHL's brand in the Sun Belt. Comrie, however, moved his base here years ago, along with his father and other family members, in search of peace - more sunlight, less limelight.



His departure came after a bitter standoff with the team. Fans who wept as Gretzky left held the door for Comrie, and in Tinsel Town, rather than build a brand, he has married one: Hilary Duff, the Disney child star (Lizzie McGuire) who has gone on to become a successful singer, clothing designer and, soon, author of books for young adults.



His wife's star power has thrust him back into the spotlight that drove him from his home seven years ago. Paparazzi follow them everywhere - it's too risky to walk the dogs in daylight. But he's not about to retreat to his candle-lit sanctuary quite yet.



About to turn 30 (next Saturday), Comrie is still chasing something Gretzky has that he does not: a Stanley Cup ring.



That seemed like the impossible dream in Edmonton, but this week Comrie capped his summer to remember by agreeing to suit up this season alongside Sidney Crosby.



EDMONTON FIXTURE



Bill Comrie was a 19-year-old Chicago Blackhawks prospect when his father died in 1969 and he had to choose between hockey and the family business. To support his mother, he chose the latter and two years later sold his stake in Bill Comrie's Alberta Factory Sales to launch what would become The Brick. Heavy advertising and marketing gimmicks, such as opening at midnight for a sale, helped annual sales grow to $75-million by 1980, the year his son Mike was born and the Oilers were entering the decade in which they'd win the Cup five times.



One of the city's wealthiest residents, Comrie was also very well known for appearing in The Brick's corny TV ads. Finally, the spotlight grew too bright and, amid reports that he'd received personal threats, he hired a talking head and shunned the spotlight.



"For years, he had someone walking around protecting him from a camera," says long-time friend Dennis Erker, an Edmonton-based consultant. "We were all there to make damn sure no one ever took a picture of him. And then one day he realized he became public property."



The reclusiveness continued when he lost his wife and had three youngsters to raise. "He was always doing his best to keep our lives private, growing up," Mike recalls.



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.



Bill Comrie now says his move south had nothing to do with his son's problems, but Erker, his old friend, suspects "it was no coincidence."



MR. DUFF



Comrie lives in a home that Duff bought while still a teenager, in the tony hills north of Hollywood. But the two will be here only a few months, until their new place in a gated community is ready.



Although tastefully furnished (Comrie says he's unsure if anything is from The Brick), it is relatively humble by Beverly Hills standards. The kitchen contains evidence of their professional lives - his daily diet is posted on the fridge (from a bacon cheddar burrito for breakfast to five pigs-in-a-blanket as a nighttime snack) and a script marked "Spiderman" sits on the table, with lines for a character simply called "girl" highlighted in yellow (rumours swirl about who Spidey's love interest will be in the series' next instalment.)



Duff swoops into the room, beaming, and asks for patience while she dries her hair. Afterward, she offers a tour of the main floor. A skylit dining room with a table, 10 chairs and a baby grand piano, a kitchen with a TV streaming feeds from 15 security cameras, and the living room, with its candles and blankets - which retail for $1,125 U.S. and make the place look monogrammed only because they're by Hermès.



Still, Duff claims their life is low-key. "Aside from a few glasses of wine now and then, we're pretty straight-edge," she says, passing an old safe they plan to use as a liquor cabinet of sorts. "The idea was to keep like fancy bottles in it but, oh, they're empty. You see how hard we party."



She is joking, but her husband laments the demise of his "street cred" - "I told her my YouTube videos went from me scoring goals and fighting, to walking down the street, holding hands."



Hockey-and-Hollywood hookups aren't new, nor are they often smooth sailing. Reports have already surfaced of friction between Mike Fisher, a former Comrie teammate in Ottawa, and his wife of less than two months, country star Carrie Underwood. Two years ago, bad boy Sean Avery was suspended and then dropped by the Dallas Stars for trash-talking his old flame, actress Elisha Cuthbert, to her new love Dion Phaneuf, now captain of Toronto's Maple Leafs.



But the Comrie-Duff match predates all that. They first crossed paths in 2007 while on vacation at a lake in Idaho, which is about all they agree on. "I still have a completely different outlook on how we met ...," says Duff, who turns 23 on Sept. 28. "He tells everyone, first of all, that we met on Facebook, which really undoes me. And second of all, he tells everyone that I hit on him first, and that's so not true." At this, Comrie smiles, having earlier admitted he avoids both Facebook and Twitter.



However, they do agree that he resorted to a bit of hot-dogging while kneeboarding on the lake by putting the tow rope between his teeth - Look, Lizzie: no hands. "You were totally showing off for me," she says, laughing.



But she bought it. "I called my mom the next day and said, 'I think I have a crush on somebody.' "



When the two started going out, a little homework was in order: He had to brush up on her career ("I knew who she was, but I didn't know everything she did") and she needed Hockey 101. "I knew I was dating an actor when she started talking about a rink being called a venue and my jersey being an outfit," he says. She also admits to calling practices "rehearsals."



But friend and Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff remembers that "right from the start ... there seemed to be a really strong connection."



And a problem. Duff was about to go on tour (three of her four albums have sold platinum) and one of her first shows was to be in Edmonton, making Comrie worry about what kind of reception she might receive - "I was like, 'Oh, my goodness' "(as close as he comes to swearing).



But the visit went well, their relationship blossomed and this year he proposed with a ring said to be worth $1-million. Paparazzi caught the moment - and one later when the couple was on a balcony apparently doing something provocative, which Comrie denies: "You realize you can't let your guard down."



Although accustomed to such scrutiny - before Comrie, she dated singers Aaron Carter and Joel Madden - Duff describes it as "so intrusive. I understand everybody's just trying to make money and stuff, but it's hard."



Then she adds, "Makes me want to move to Edmonton," which leaves her husband wide-eyed. Where to live is a touchy issue - and reportedly the cause of the spat between Nashville-based Underwood and Fisher, whose home is outside Ottawa.



Would they really move to Edmonton? "That's a loaded question," Comrie replies, with a nervous laugh.



But the Texas-born Duff, who was raised in California, has worked in Vancouver and Toronto, and says: "I miss seasons. That's what I love about Canada is having seasons, having snow for Christmas."



To which he replies: "You like seasons until you have them, year after year after year ... We still love L.A."



PRODIGAL'S RETURN



Comrie may be hesitant to go home because he has. Last year he rejoined the Oilers in a move that he, his agent and Kevin Lowe all describe as a bid to bury the hatchet.



It began well. In his first game, a preseason 4-0 win, he collected four points and got into a fight. The crowd chanted his name. "It was almost like a dream," he says.



But after that, he fought the flu and then mononucleosis, playing in just 43 of 82 games and able to do little to keep the Oilers from finishing dead last. "It was a tough situation because they were trying to play the young guys," he says, "and you don't want to go back and ruffle feathers."



The team's rebuilding process ruled out a new contract, so he dropped his price and shopped for another shot at the Cup - he was a Senator when Ottawa reached the finals the year he and Duff met.



The one-year deal in Pittsburgh pays the league minimum of $500,000 but reunites him with Sidney Crosby - they played together for Canada in the 2006 world championships - and evokes a bit of family history. The Penguins drafted his uncle Fred in 1973, although he never suited up for the team.



"I'm excited - it was definitely a hockey decision ... I wanted to go to a great team and be part of an organization like Pittsburgh," and, he confesses, "to be able to compete for a Stanley Cup."



The move east also will give him a break from the spotlight (in Pittsburgh even Crosby enjoys some anonymity) - he still seems genuinely surprised when the media pounced on the news that he and Duff have signed a prenuptial agreement.



"I don't think Mike looks at me like I'm a celebrity, and vice versa ...," Duff says. "It's just kind of like our jobs, and those things you learn to handle. You know, I'm in love with Mike. I love him."



For now, he focuses on his training, awaiting the solace of life in hockey and that gated community, where no lens can reach a balcony or dog park.



Barring a major injury, he can expect to play another five years. After that? He doesn't know.



He could go back to Edmonton and follow in the footsteps of his father and brother. After leaving hockey eight years ago, Paul Comrie also joined the family business and rose to become a vice-president.



"Yeah," the new Penguin says. "The problem is, I don't have the body to deliver furniture."

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