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Cammalleri using size to his advantage

Thursday, 10.09.2008 / 9:00 AM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

New start. New scenery. Most importantly for Michael Cammalleri, a trade from the Los Angeles Kings to the Calgary Flames on the first day of the draft in June gives him the very real opportunity to compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time as he enters his sixth NHL season.

To show how excited he is about that possibility, the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder from Richmond Hill, Ontario, was more than ready for his first action as a member of the Flames, getting the game-winning goal in a 3-1 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes in Calgary's preseason opener ... and, oh yes, he also dropped his gloves with tough guy Daniel Carcillo.

But the scrap was a little added bonus from the diminutive, high-energy Cammalleri, who was acquired with the idea of rebounding from a disappointing 19-goal season (which included 10 goals in his first 10 games and just 9 the rest of the way) to help provide secondary scoring behind Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow.

"Mike is a competitive skater and goal scorer. He brings a lot of energy and is really good on the power play," Flames GM Darryl Sutter said after a three-team trade in which the Kings acquired a first-round draft choice from the Anaheim Ducks. "Honestly, we look at him as a versatile guy who can play center and either wing ... and we think he replaces the offense we got from Alex."

Big job for a little guy? Not really, if you look at Cammalleri's past.

Talk to Mike and you'll find an upbeat, confident athlete who has always wanted to compete for a Canadian team. He laughed when we asked him about overcoming the size obstacle he has always faced late last season.

"My dad gave me some great advice when I was a kid," he said, kind of chuckling. "He said, 'It's not basketball, where the rim is 10 feet high. It’s hockey and the puck is on the ice.' "

That’s what Leo Cammalleri used to tell his son -- and anyone else when the subject of Mike's size came up.

As a youngster, Mike had all the Wayne Gretzky memorabilia, and Pavel Bure and Peter Forsberg were next on his list of favorites. But he would sit and stare at the intensity in the face of Doug Gilmour, since the Maple Leafs were his hometown team. Most of all, Cammalleri would look at the fear in the faces of the players who were asked to try to stop Gilmour.

No one would dare call Gilmour small to his face. And the same is true with Cammalleri.

"I never really thought about it much when I was growing up," Cammalleri said.

Why? Because he was too busy scoring goals and setting up his teammates to bother with some fault someone else wanted to talk about.

"I remember watching Gilmour and he did OK," Cammalleri said. "He used his size -- or lack thereof -- and passion for the game to his advantage. I'm not big, either. I just thought I was big."

The 26-year-old talked about obstacles in our interview, but only when I brought it up. Clearly, this is a self-motivated, driven athlete who makes his own breaks and doesn't ask for favors in a game that most still consider a big man's game.

"I remember watching Gilmour and he did OK. He used his size -- or lack thereof -- and passion for the game to his advantage. I'm not big, either. I just thought I was big." -- Mike Cammalleri

A big part of that self-motivation came from the values he learned at home from hard-working parents, who also had athletic histories in football and basketball.

Leo, who owned a construction company in Richmond Hill, was once offered a football scholarship to Queens College in Toronto as a cornerback. But hockey was his first love. Mike got his passion for hockey from dad -- and his good sense and heart from his mom, Ruth, who was a radiology technician and a basketball player as a youngster.

"I got to play organized hockey when I was just 7," Mike said with a smile, then added that he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone because ... "My dad fibbed about my age. It was a league for 8-year-old players. But he knew me pretty well. He knew I was more than ready to compete with kids older than me."

Clearly, you don't need a birth certificate or tape measure to put a value on Mike Cammalleri's heart and soul performances on the ice.

"I remember Craig Clark, the coach I had when I played for the Toronto Red Wings in 1993, telling all of his players that it didn't matter what we were going to do in life, we should always be the best we could be," Cammalleri said. "He used to say, ‘Whether you're going to be a ditch-digger, a plumber, a lawyer, a doctor, or a professional athlete, you go out there and be the best ditch-digger ..."

Pretty easy to see the no-fear-to-fail attitude in this hockey mini-mite, who has always been on the fast track to success.

While most were still in high school at 17, Cammalleri was already starting his three-year stay at the University of Michigan and working toward his major in sports business. It was after Mike’s sophomore year at Ann Arbor when he led the CCHA in goals with 29 and totaled 61 points in just 42 games that the Kings selected him in the second round of the 2001 Entry Draft.

He's probably the best hockey player that few people know about. Part of that is because of his size. Most of all, it's that when he was with the Kings, they play those late games, plus they haven't made the playoffs since 2002. But Mike's definitely no fluke. He had a career-highs in goals (34), power-play goals (16), game-winning goals (5), assists (46), points (60), shots (299) and plus-minus (plus-5). That came after he scored 26 goals the year before in his first season as a regular in the NHL.

 
 
"He's very driven," said Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, who coached Cammalleri for a couple seasons in the American Hockey League. "He wants to be the best all the time . That's a tremendous trait. If you're up 6-1 or down 6-1, he wants to get the next goal."

"The great thing about Michael is that he expects to do big things," former Kings coach Marc Crawford said last season. "He wants the puck ... all the time. He's one of the best power-play players I've ever had."

Whoa! This is the same coach who had Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk in Colorado and Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and the Sedins in Vancouver.

"His intense desire to score is what really stands out to me," Crawford continued. "It’s a lot like the desire that Markus Naslund showed me every night. Once either of those two scored they became relentless. I had the feeling they were going to get another."

Cammalleri's perseverance. His passion for the game. His hunger. His defiant nature makes him a player to watch. A man in motion.

"I'm a shorter player, yeah," he said. "That just made me want to get really strong in the weight room. I figured if I could be one of the strongest guys, I could get away with the fact that I’m not one of the tallest."

More than anything, however, he plays like someone a whole lot bigger than Michael Cammalleri.

"If you think of yourself as a small player," he said, "you won't last in this league. I think there comes a point in your career when, if you're going to be effective at this level, you forget that you are shorter than almost everybody else."

Obviously, the Flame burns even larger now that Cammalleri is in Calgary with an opportunity to make it to the playoffs for the first time in his NHL career.
Quote of the Day

I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.

— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic