"All I really remember doing is playing hockey as a kid," said the 14-year NHL veteran. "I don't remember playing much with toys or GI Joe or building things. I just remember playing ice hockey and if ice wasn't available, street hockey, and if street hockey wasn't available, knee hockey in the living room and if knee hockey wasn't available - like at my grandparents' house - I'd wrap up tin foil into a ball and play hand hockey on the floors. I mean, that's all we did….play hockey. So I think, originally, my love for the game was pretty genuine and just loving the sport."
After trying his hand at every position as a youth hockey player, it was quite obvious where he belonged.
"Everyone wanted to play goal because the equipment was cool, so I volunteered for that at first, but then I'd get bored and creep out of the net...I like scoring goals a lot better," he said with a smile.
His love for the sport naturally lead to a desire to be good at it.
"I played a lot of hockey and was able to have success at a young age and my goal was simply to be the best I could be and to be better than anyone else I was playing against really. I don't know if that's really a tangible goal or something you can really talk about or evaluate at a certain level or if it was more internal and about how I was living my life," said the Devils' alternate captain. "Even at a young age, it was really important to me to just be as good as I could at hockey."
While there were certainly challenges along the way, Cammalleri was always eager to overcome them.
"I enjoyed any challenge that came and enjoyed learning about the game and trying to get better at the game. My father was a huge influence on me and he made the game fun. He made the game romantic and passionate and when those challenges would come, he gave me one of the best pieces of advice. He told me…if it was easy, everyone would do it."
It was in that moment that Cammalleri learned he needed to be his biggest motivator if he wanted to accomplish his goals.
"I think in most cases, if you want to accomplish something that's exceptional or not the norm, being a self motivator is mandatory," Cammalleri explained. "We can have other motivating factors that help us or inspire us and they might lead us to want to do these exceptional things, but ultimately we all have to be our own motivators. There are going to be times where the lights are off and nobody's watching and what you do in those times are truly going to effect what happens when the lights are on."
Even at a young age, he knew he wanted to play hockey forever, but it wasn't until he was 15 that he realized exactly how his love for the game and desire to be his best could lead him to the NHL. That's when college coaches started calling with scholarship offers in hand.
"Growing up, university and college hockey was something that was preached to me heavily and it was a path my parents thought I should take from a very young age and I'm a big proponent of it. I think it's a great experience for a young person to have. I went to visit a couple schools and ended up committing to Michigan at 15 and went there when I was 17," explained Cammalleri.
"My initial meeting with Red [Berenson, head coach of the University of Michigan] kind of told the tale of my whole relationship with him and of what he's all about. He said, 'I've heard great things about you but I don't like bringing guys in at 17. Chances are you'll come in at 18. If you're ready at 17, we'll bring you in, but you'll be judged solely on merit and if you play well, you'll play more than a senior, but if you don't play well as a senior, you'll play less than a freshman. That's how it works here. I'm not going to make you any promises, but from what I hear, let's fast track your high school and we'll monitor you and see if you're ready if you decide to come here.' That was motivation in and of itself and it meant a lot to me and, to his word, he came to see me play junior the next couple years. So, that was my motivation during those years to really advance my game and get through high school in three years and do things that were maybe out of my comfort zone to try and push myself to earn that opportunity."
According to Berenson, it didn't take long for him to be convinced that Cammalleri belonged at Michigan sooner rather than later.
"I just thought he would be successful here," he said. "He was a serious student and he was a serious athlete and I thought he would fit in here. I remember this one game - we were playing [Nebraska] Omaha - and he lined up at center and the guy he was facing off against just looked so much older than him and I looked at the lineup and he was 25 and Mike was 17. It was just such a huge difference, but he held up well. He had the confidence and the mental grit that he needed as a small player. He had always been small and was probably always told that he was too small to really play this game, but you couldn't knock him off his feet. As much as teams would try to hit him a lot and play him tough trying to push him around, they just couldn't do it. He had a great sense of balance and could handle the puck in traffic and he was a delight to watch. He did things that you can't coach.
"You didn't have to motivate Mike Cammalieri. He had such a passion for the game and to be at the rink. He just couldn't wait to play and he loved the game," Berenson continued. "He bought into our strength and conditioning program from Day One. He wanted to get better. He wanted to get stronger. He wanted to get faster. Everything we asked of him, he did and more. He just maxed out for every workout, every practice, every game because he knew that's what it would take for him to get better and make it to the next level. He's not just a skilled player, he's a fit player and he's always looking for an edge."
Pushing himself out of his comfort zone and looking for that edge, whether it meant working with a sprinting coach to improve his speed and explosiveness or a power lifting coach to improve his strength or a skating coach to improve his stride, is something Cammalleri has embraced from the beginning.
"I've always wanted to do more. My challenge is to manage that desire to push myself and manage expectations and stay more even keeled. That's been more of a challenge for me instead of pushing to get better…that comes naturally," he explained. "I've always enjoyed the game and I enjoy trying to get better and I think I can get better and I think I'm a better player today than I was last year or three years or four years ago. It's always a work in progress."
It's that internal drive and relentless work ethic that has helped him earn two silver medals at the World Junior Championship in 2001 and 2002 and a gold medal at the 2007 World Championship and a 14-year-and-counting NHL career, but he's not even close to being done yet.
"At the beginning of your career, you want to become a player who's an NHL player and then you want to become an every day player that your coach can rely on and then you get to the point where your interests are closely correlated with the team's success," said the Devils' leading scorer with 11 points in 12 games. "For me, at this point, it's a matter of how competitive we can be as a group night in and night out. So far this year, we're liking a lot of what we're doing - we still have a long way to go - but we're trying to accomplish that goal of being a competitive team.
"I just want to add as much as I can to this team right now and be as impactful as I can and help us be successful. Like with any goal…when you start talking about the Stanley Cup, a lot of that is just words. It's a matter of what we're going to do every day to allow us to have a chance to compete and if you do that, you have the chance to wake up one day and realize you've won one."
A New Jersey native, who grew up loving hockey, Julie Robenhymer covers the NHL, NCAA and various international tournaments. Follow her on Twitter at @JulieRobenhyme.