Clubs and spades are the most distinguished suits in a deck of cards. Black and white, button-up and almost proper, without so much as a splash of color.
Tucked away in a hand of ordinary numbers are two black aces… and a tuft of red peaking out from behind.
No, it's not a diamond or a heart, but a sprig of red hair attached to the grinning face that holds what will prove to be a wild hand. It may not be the glitz and glamour of the World Series of Poker, but for Mike Commodore, cards are a way of life to pass the time between games. It's competitive, and often played in the back row of seats on a Greyhound bus, but the stakes are no less high than they'd be in Vegas.
Commodore is part of an era of hockey players who played through an NHL lockout and navigated the ever-changing game in the early 2000s, but while some players folded at the moment, his vibrance and fervor pushed him through a long and memorable NHL career.
"The card games… that may be something I miss the most," said Commodore.
The Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta-born Commodore played his collegiate hockey at the University of North Dakota. While at UND, Commodore scored in the NCAA Frozen Four national title game and helped his team to the school's seventh championship. North Dakota was also the birthplace of Commodore's signature red afro.
"I'm a guy who likes to have fun and I would do it in my pro career," said Commodore. "Except for when I was with New Jersey, but yeah I'd shave my head at the start of the season and just go from there."
Even for Commodore's already colorful personality, he, like many, first had to prove himself in the minor leagues.
Commodore was on a yo-yo in the first three years of his career with 160 AHL games and 75 NHL games between 2000 and 2004. Once acquired by Calgary, Commodore developed into a day-in-day-out defenseman who saw action in all 20 playoff games during the Flames' 2004 Western Conference championship season. And then, the NHL lockout in 2004-05 derailed everything.
"I was in the American League and the top-two, sometimes even the top-three lines are NHL guys," said Commodore, who played the season with the Lowell Lock Monsters. "You know, the minor leagues are great because you get so close to the fans and it wasn't a bad year," said Commodore, "but you're on the bus a lot and it's like – oh man, I'm back here again."
With a high concentration of AHL teams in the northeast, Commodore, who had played in the Stanley Cup Final just six months prior, wasn't even afforded a sleeper bus.
"I've never been on a sleeper bus to this day," admitted Commodore. "We had foam mattresses and pads that you'd stick in the floor by where your feet are and it's never totally comfortable, but you play cards and you talk, and it's good bonding time."
After the lockout, Commodore was given a chance with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he logged the largest chunk of his NHL career and added even more to his already full-bodied persona.
"There was a little pamphlet that said 'a gift for you from the Carolina Hurricanes,'" chuckled Commodore, "and one of the items was a bathrobe, and I'm like, well I don't have a bathrobe."
Just before the Hurricanes 2006 championship, the white cotton robe arrived and a legend was born.
"I put it on and did a little dance in the locker room and Glen Wesley was like, you've got to get your number stitched in," said Commodore, who wore the robe before every game of the playoffs that year.
For the second time in three seasons, Commodore found himself in the Stanley Cup Final, facing a do-or-die game seven. Wanting to win so badly, but understanding the bitter disappointment of a loss, Commodore asked his parents not to be near the then-RBC Center ice. After a thrilling 3-1 victory and a Stanley Cup title, Commodore remembered missing his parents.
"I was pissed off for a few minutes there, but then someone taps me on the shoulder," said Commodore. "It was Kid Rock and I love Kid Rock! He goes, 'man that was awesome, love watching you play – call me Bob.'"
Bob and Commodore planned to party in downtown Raleigh that night after the Cup win, but the Hurricanes, who hadn't won a title in franchise history, marked the moment with speeches from the team's leadership.
"Don't get me wrong it was great to listen to Rod [Brind'Amour] and it was great to listen to Glen [Wesley] and Brett Hedican, but I was like I don't think Bob is gonna wait for me," said Commodore.
The night didn't end with a party with Kid Rock, but as Commodore smiled through the missed opportunity, the memory remains blissfully intact amongst a slew of them in a wild career.
"I wish every player had the chance to play for the Cup because it's awesome, but it takes a ton to get there," said Commodore.
The cards dealt to Mike Commodore in his career included a continued feud with Mike Babcock, 10-hour bus rides to Norfolk and Hershey, a music video appearance, an NCAA title, and a Stanley Cup title.
You can't control what suits get laid before you, but in Commodore's case, he played his hand well – making memory upon memory with spade, club and diamond, all played with heart.
Tickets for Affiliation Night on February 10th are on sale now! Make sure to grab one for your pass to take a picture with the Stanley Cup at 3:30 p.m. inside The Monument Fine Arts Theatre. Then, head over to the live show at 5 p.m. to hear from all NHL alumni visiting. Season ticket holders can add on the theatre events by calling the Rush Front Office. Head to rapidcityrush.com to grab tickets and find more information.