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Sept. 27, 2011

by Kyle Kujawa  -
Many hockey stories begin with the same recipe: take one kid from Canada (or Sweden, Russia or Michigan), add a lot of skating on an outdoor rink, a handful of two-hour car rides to attend tournaments in remote cities, and a dash of waking up early for 5 a.m. practices. Bake for 20 years (give or take) and enjoy your professional hockey player.

Not many players have stories that involve spending childhoods at the beach, or wandering the same streets as Hollywood celebrities.

That’s the case for Griffins rookie Mitchell Callahan, a native of Whittier, Calif., a city located just 12 miles southeast of Los Angeles, that’s best known as the childhood home of former President Richard Nixon.

“Playing hockey in California was fun,” said Callahan, “but I didn’t take it too seriously. I took it as more of a hobby.”

As a 16-year-old in 2007-08, Callahan suited up in 52 games for the Los Angeles Jr. Kings and showed his scoring touch with 69 points (32-37—69). While the organization is one of the most successful in Southern California and boasts a handful of NHL draft picks, Callahan knew he’d have to make a jump to a higher league if he wanted a career in hockey.

That’s when he was invited to training camp by the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets.

“When I started to get older and I got to travel to Kelowna, I started taking it seriously,” Callahan explained. “I wanted it to be my future job and life.”

Making any team in junior hockey as an undrafted tryout is a challenge, and Kelowna was by no means a bottom-feeder that was looking for players to fill out its roster. The Rockets accumulated a 47-21-1-3 record en route to capturing the WHL Championship during his rookie season of 2008-09.

“It was exciting, I knew my role on the team,” said Callahan, who contributed 27 points (14-13—27) and 188 penalty minutes in 70 games. “I was a speedster, a fourth line guy. I didn’t play outside of my boundaries there.”

Callahan quickly became a fan favorite with his energetic style and his ability and willingness to drop the gloves, as evidenced by the 20 fighting majors he recorded to tie for second in the WHL.

He’s quick to credit the leaders on that team, which included Buffalo’s Tyler Myers and Dallas’ Jamie Benn, for showing him what real dedication to hockey looked like.

“Overall, it helped me tremendously to see the dedication the guys had for the game and watch how hard they worked,” said Callahan. “For a young guy, it really helped me a lot.”

After Kelowna captured the WHL crown, it moved on to the prestigious Memorial Cup tournament, where Callahan helped the Rockets compete against the top junior clubs in Canada.

“It was probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had playing hockey,” said the 20-year-old. “I didn’t see the ice very much, but all I wanted to do was win. We were just a period away from doing that.”

Callahan picked up an assist in four games played, but ultimately the Rockets lost to the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires by a 4-1 score in the final game.

Despite being unranked by all major scouting services for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Callahan was selected by Detroit in the 6th round, 180th overall.
He said the experience of being a WHL tryout straight from California one summer, to winning a league title and skating at an NHL training camp the following summer, was completely overwhelming.

“I had never been to an NHL camp,” said Callahan. “I never heard any stories because none of my friends really went that far. I was kind of nervous, but excited at the same time.”

Detroit sent Callahan back to Kelowna the following two seasons. With 14 goals as a rookie, Callahan was by no means one-dimensional, but he said he was anxious to develop his all-around game. In each of his last two seasons, his penalty minute totals went down while his offensive output went up.

“My last year in Kelowna, they told me no more than 10 fights,” explained Callahan, who finished last season with nine fighting majors after compiling 39 in his first two seasons. “They wanted me to be the best defensive player on the team and play in all situations at any given time.”

Callahan became an offensive leader for the Rockets in 2010-11, finishing fourth on the team with 54 points (23-31—54) in 62 games. He was named the WHL Player of the Week early in the season after notching five goals and seven assists in a four-game span from Nov. 2-6. He was rewarded for his success when he represented the United States at the 2011 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y.

“I think any kid wants to play for their country in the world juniors,” said Callahan, who had family make the trip from California to Buffalo to see him play. “It was very exciting to play against guys from Team Canada and just soak it all up.”

Callahan played a role in his country’s bronze-medal finish – the first time the Americans had ever medaled on home ice – by scoring the game-winning goal in a preliminary round match against Switzerland to secure the team’s pass into the semifinal round. However, Callahan was quick to downplay the accomplishment.

“Well, it was in the second period, so it wasn’t a huge game-winning goal like you’d expect,” he said. “I think more credit goes to (goaltender) Jack Campbell in that game, because in the third period, he just stood on his head.”

After completing his third training camp with the Red Wings, Callahan looks to be ready for the next challenge professional hockey. The Red Wings assigned him to the Griffins on Monday, and he’s expected to make his professional debut in a few short weeks.

“It’s exciting to be out there, seeing all the NHL guys,” Callahan said. “It makes you want to make that next step, and it motivates you in a great way.”

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