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Mike Komisarek, seen during an NHL pre-season game against Philadelphia, missed Tuesday's practice in Huntsville, Ont., with a groin injury. (Claus Andersen/2009 Getty Images)
Mike Komisarek, seen during an NHL pre-season game against Philadelphia, missed Tuesday's practice in Huntsville, Ont., with a groin injury. (Claus Andersen/2009 Getty Images)

Opener means more to Komisarek Add to ...

Mike Komisarek just laughed when someone asked if his tender hamstring might keep him out of the Toronto Maple Leafs' season opener.

"It's going to take a lot more than a little minor tweak of the hamstring to keep me out of that game," he said as his teammates headed for the bus and the end of their three-day retreat in cottage country in preparation for tonight's season opener against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre.

There will be much more than the usual opening-night eagerness and butterflies for Komisarek. For the rest of the Leafs, it is a game against their oldest NHL rival as well as the first step in what is being touted as Season One of the rebuilding plan under general manager Brian Burke, a season which is supposed to end with a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

For Komisarek, personally, it is much more. It is a game against his old team, albeit one he left as a free agent. It is his first appearance as a big part of the rebuilt Leafs defence and, perhaps most of all, it is the first game of an audition to be the first Leafs captain since Mats Sundin, who retired yesterday, a little more than a year after his days as a Leaf ended.

The Leafs went with five rotating alternate captains last season. This time there will be three - defencemen Tomas Kaberle, François Beauchemin and Komisarek. Head coach Ron Wilson said he expects to appoint one of them captain, perhaps by Nov. 1.

"When you play for a storied franchise like the Toronto Maple Leafs that has such a rich history, two retired numbers, 15 honoured players, 13 Stanley Cups, you do not throw that C around on anyone," said Komisarek, 27, who may hail from West Islip, N.Y., but obviously has been reading the Leafs' media guide. "It's a matter for new guys to come in and earn the trust and respect of your teammates. You have to learn to play for that crest on the front of the jersey."

One thing Komisarek did not have to check out in reference material was how intense any game between the Canadiens and the Leafs gets no matter what the individual fortunes of the teams are.

"The original-six battles always have that extra emotion and intensity," he said. "As a player those are the games you want to play - centre stage."

Komisarek's fellow defenceman and alternate captain, Beauchemin, 29, also has a history with the Canadiens. The Sorel, Que., native was taken 75th overall by the Canadiens in the 1998 NHL entry draft but failed to excite anyone in the organization.

Beauchemin played just one game for the Canadiens and then spent two seasons with their Hamilton Bulldogs farm team (where he played with Komisarek) before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was not until Burke landed him during his days as GM of the Anaheim Ducks that Beauchemin blossomed into a solid NHL defenceman.

Now that he followed Burke to Toronto, Beauchemin says he does not look back in anger at the Canadiens. They rated Komisarek and Ron Hainsey higher than him at the time, so that's how it goes.

"As an organization you always look to the guys you draft high and give them a chance first, so I never really had a chance to play," Beauchemin said. "But I'm not really bitter. I got a chance to play for Columbus and then got to Anaheim and played a lot of minutes."

Besides, he said, given the player movement that is a fact of life these days, the fact he was reunited with his old friend Komisarek and they will open the season against their former employer is not that unusual.

"Yes, it does seem different that we were playing for the Montreal system and there is a big rivalry," Beauchemin said. "But there are changes [in personnel]every year now with new rules and the salary cap and teams have to adjust to it.

"It's always exciting to play the Canadiens, always a little bit more of a challenge, especially with friends and family back home watching the game. That was the team when I was growing up, just 45 miles from Montreal. That makes it more interesting when we play them."

The Leafs made their final cuts yesterday and they went as the team indicated earlier in the week. Sent to the Leafs' Toronto Marlies farm team were forwards Nikolai Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty and Tyler Bozak, defenceman Carl Gunnarsson and goaltender Joey MacDonald.

Forward Phil Kessel (shoulder) and defenceman Mike Van Ryn (knee) will start the season on the injured-reserve list.

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