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Meet Leo Komarov, the Leafs’ international man of mystery

There's still so much we don't really know about Leo Komarov.

And may never know.

Even untangling where exactly the Toronto Maple Leafs' international man of mystery is from, and what his key influences are, is a bit of an ordeal.

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Born in Narva, Estonia, where his father, Alexander – an Ingrian Finn from Petrozavodsk, Russia – was playing low-level pro hockey, Komarov grew up in Finland after the family moved to the small town of Nykarleby when he was five.

Located at a latitude of 63 degrees north, it's closer to the Arctic Circle than Yellowknife.

Finnish is not the primary language in Nykarleby, however, meaning little Leonid was already about to take on his third and fourth languages. (English would come later.)

"I went to a Swedish school," Komarov explained. "We had a rink beside my house. I pretty much got everything I had there."

Alexander Komarov, meanwhile, was in Finland not to play hockey but pro soccer, although all these years later, his son isn't quite sure at what level. "It's not that good," he said.

What he does recall is that his father painted a lot of houses to make ends meet – in addition to his sideline gigs on the ice and on the field.

It was an interesting way to grow up.

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From all of that has come not a confused young man, but a unique, charismatic everyman whom everyone seems to adore.

Leafs management, coaches and players all gush when asked for a story about Komarov, whom teammates have given the nicknames "Corporal" and "Komrade," in two references to a Leo Komarov-themed parody account on Twitter.

His play this season – his 10 points are already better than his career season-high after only 15 games – has made him even more of a fan favourite in Toronto.

"I think the fans recognize the work ethic and the commitment to being physical and how hard he plays," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "It's on display night in, night out."

"He's the most interesting man in the world," teammate James Reimer added. "He takes a lot [of ribbing from teammates] and he takes it well, you know what I mean? He can take a joke and make it really funny."

The Leafs made a strong statement in signing Komarov in the off-season. General manager Dave Nonis had him as a top priority in free agency – flying to Helsinki right before July 1 – and the four-year, $11.8-million (U.S.) contract appeared rather rich given Komarov's limited offensive contributions in his only other NHL season.

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But the organization saw more there, especially after Komarov put up 34 points in 52 games for a share of the scoring lead with Dynamo Moscow last season.

To date, he has exceeded those off-season expectations. In addition to his scoring spree, Komarov is sixth among Leafs forwards in even-strength ice time, and he's killing more than three minutes in penalties a game as part of the top unit.

Only Phil Kessel has more points at even strength, something Carlyle credits to Komarov's greater confidence not only with the puck, but in his place in the league in general.

"It feels easier," Komarov said. "But I don't think the game has changed at all."

"One thing with Leo is wherever he has gone, people have always first thought of him as [a] marginal player," said Juha Hiitela, a well-known Finnish sportswriter based in Vancouver. "Not just because he was young, but also because of his [playing] style. And with every team, he has raised [himself up] to an important role. Everyone thought Dynamo brought him to Moscow to be the translator for their new Swedish stars. Two years later, Leo was the fan favorite and assistant captain."

"He's making do with what he's got – I think that's the way he leads his life," Carlyle said of Komarov's underdog approach. "I think that's the way he approaches the game. He's going to do whatever it takes to get it done."

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Part of why Komarov was intimidated in his first North American stint in 2012-13 was the fact he was in awe.

He had spent a lifetime idolizing NHL players such as Jaromir Jagr and countryman Jarkko Ruutu, and would wake up early to watch highlights of games to discuss them with his friends.

Then it would be out to Nykarleby's frigid outdoor rink – there were no indoor ones by the time he moved away at 16 – for games of shinny.

Years later, to hear those in Finland tell it, Komarov is a local hero, and when he ventures back, he's mobbed by well-wishers who have made the Leafs their new favourite team.

Komarov proudly talks about being able to buy his parents a house there. He admits he doesn't get back to Nykarleby enough, but enjoys talking about home, going on at length about the new indoor "ice hall" that kids have to play at.

Its name? Komarov Arena.

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"They're having a great time there," he said of his parents. "It's small. Everybody knows each other … Everybody knows me. I was out all the time, hanging out with the boys there."

In all his travels and with all the languages he speaks, Komarov has also picked up a lot of friends in the game.

The highest-profile one just might be Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin after their time together with Dynamo, but he also counts fellow NHLers Mikael Granlund and Jori Lehtera as pals after coming up through the Finnish system with them.

Asked who his closest "comrades" in the league are, however, he doesn't hesitate.

Looking around the Leafs dressing room after practice, Komarov says, simply, "They're in here."

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