Callahan savors first taste of NHL

by Bob Crawford || AHL On The Beat Archive

Easily the hottest trigger finger on the Hartford Wolf Pack club during the early going of this 2006-07 season belonged to rookie Ryan Callahan.

Most of the players that the Pack were counting on to produce offense struggled in the first month of the campaign, but Callahan, after managing just one assist in his first four games, was true to the form that he displayed in junior hockey, where he scored 52 goals last season for the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm.

In fact, Callahan’s offensive production was so solid and so consistent over a period of 15 games through U.S. Thanksgiving weekend, it intrigued the parent New York Rangers enough to give the young winger a summons to the NHL.

As if that weren’t thrilling enough for Callahan, he got a chance to make his NHL debut against the powerful Sabres in Buffalo, not even 75 miles from his native Rochester, N.Y.

Pretty heady stuff for a guy who was a healthy scratch for the Wolf Pack’s second game of the year.

“It was amazing, to be able to get a chance to play my first NHL game right next to my hometown,” the 21-year-old Callahan says. “It was definitely something special, I had a lot of family members and friends there, and for them to get a chance to see me play my first NHL game is definitely special for me and the family.”

And as pumped up as Callahan was, it might have been even a bigger thrill for his parents, to be able to see their son achieve his dream practically right in their own backyard.

“They were real excited,” Callahan says of Mom and Dad. “All they’ve done for me growing up through hockey, to have me reach this level, they were definitely excited, and real proud of me.”

Just walking into a locker room that houses living hockey legends like Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, plus a number of other established NHL stars, would seem to be an intimidating experience. Callahan reports, however, that he was immediately made to feel that he was part of the team.

“Those guys, they took me right in, which was nice,” the former fourth-round (2004) Ranger draft pick says. “They didn’t look at me as an outsider or anything, as soon as I came in they introduced themselves and stuff. And that was big, I think, I felt welcome there and a lot more comfortable too.”

The only minor downer to the whole experience was that Callahan did not get a big opportunity to show what he could do at the NHL level, as his ice time in the game Dec. 1 in Buffalo was limited to six shifts. That did not take any of the luster off the achievement for him, though, as just getting the chance to suit up for the contest was electrifying enough.

“If I would have gotten no shifts I still would have been happy,” is the way he puts it. “It was quite the experience. I only got six shifts but it was a good experience out there and I think that’s going to help me a lot coming back here.”

The Wolf Pack have been the beneficiaries of Callahan’s quick development, as he provided a huge chunk of the team’s offense in the first half of the season. He has clearly shown himself to be a pure goal-scorer, and he dominated the OHL offensively, but he says that the goals are significantly harder to come by in the AHL, even with 22 in 35 games for Hartford entering this weekend.

“It’s a lot tougher,” the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder says. “It’s quite a bit of an adjustment, guys are a lot faster and bigger, but I’ve been lucky enough to get some bounces here and there and find the back of the net.

“I’ve been playing with some good guys too, that obviously helps. Playing with Dawsie (Nigel Dawes), (Dwight) Helminen quite a bit, (Jarkko) Immonen, those guys really help me out a lot. They know how to find you (on) back door (plays) and stuff, so they’ve helped me out.”

For several weeks in October and early November, Callahan was really the only player on the Pack roster who was putting up any sort of offensive numbers. Around the Thanksgiving holiday, though, that seemed to start turning around. Callahan attributes that simply to the Wolf Pack’s hard work being rewarded with better luck.

“I think just the bounces, we’re starting to get the bounces,” he says. “We weren’t at the beginning of the season, and we’re a young team and guys are starting to get used to this league and get used to each other. There’s a bunch of new guys playing with each other, and there’s not much chemistry when that happens. I think guys are getting used to each other, and we’re getting some bounces too.”

As Callahan, who this week was named to the PlanetUSA team for the 2007 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic, strives to continue his personal development, he looks beyond the area of creating offense.

“I just want to become more of a two-way player,” he says. “Defensive zone (play) is huge. I noticed it when I went up to play with the NHL’ers, the two-way game is huge. You’ve got to be good defensively to create offense, so I’m going to try to work on that as I come back here.”

And unlike his quick appearance on the experienced Rangers roster, Callahan is being counted on by the Wolf Pack to diversify his game and play numerous different roles. That is an opportunity he relishes.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “It’s going to help my game tremendously at this level, to be able to PK (penalty kill) and get power play time. I think that’s going to help me out to move up.”

Now that he has achieved one goal by scoring a recall to the NHL and playing his first major-league game, what is the next motivational objective he dangles in front of himself?

“Just try to get back up there,” he answers. “Obviously everybody wants to make it to that level, so I’m going to come back down here and work as hard as I can and try to produce to get right back up there.”