Talking with Michael Cammalleri, one gets the distinct impression that the Kings center had very little doubt of his eventual destination. For Cammalleri, it was not a question of if he would make it to the NHL, but rather when.
Even now, playing amongst the world's best at the tender age of 23, Cammalleri's hunger seems almost palpable. Speaking about both his past and his future, Cammalleri exudes a youthful urgency, in a constant blitz to reach the next level.
"It was a little bit frustrating," Cammalleri said about first trying to break through the minor league barrier to become an NHLer. "You just want to kind of get the career going, go full steam ahead."
So, what's the rush? In just his fourth year of professional hockey, Cammalleri has become a top six forward, a player the Kings are counting on for points. Pretty impressive for a guy who's still a kid in the relative NHL sense.
But throughout his hockey career, Cammalleri has been pedal to the metal, doing more than he was expected, charting his course before most of his peers we're even thinking about theirs. He was ready for the NHL some three years ago, anxious for that next step. The wait, though critical to his development, was difficult. The delay, a normal progression for most professional players, was something he wasn't used to.
By the time Cammalleri was 11-years old he was playing in the AAA Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League before later moving up to Tier II junior hockey with the Bramalea Blues in the Ontario Hockey Association. During the 1998-99 season, at age 16, he was named the OHA's top prospect after guiding Bramalea to the Junior A Championship.
Although slotted to be one of the top picks in that summer's Ontario Hockey League draft, Cammalleri had other plans. While only 15, he visited the campus of the University of Michigan and immediately knew Ann Arbor was the place for him. He orally committed to the Wolverines before that 1998-99 season, deciding to take the college route instead of the traditional road through junior hockey.
The decision was, admittedly, not a very popular one.
"I got tons of pressure," says Cammalleri about not entering the OHL draft. "One thing I did do to kind of negate some of that pressure was I fast-tracked my high school, so I could go to college at 17. That kind of made it an easier decision."
Completing his prep work in just three years, the Ontario-native headed south of the border and into the waiting arms of Michigan's powerhouse program. A 17-year-old hockey stud on a college campus? Life was good for Cammalleri.
"I just thought (Michigan) was an awesome place, just the whole lifestyle," he said with a grin. "I really wanted to be a part of it. It was the best time of my life."
After scoring 26 points (13-13-26) in 39 games in his freshmen year, Cammalleri helped the Wolverines to back-to-back Frozen Four appearances over the next two seasons. Totaling 61 points (29-32-61) in 42 games in 2000-01, he followed that with 43 points (23-20-43) in just 28 games in 2001-02, a season interrupted by a nasty case of mononucleosis.
But, in both trips to the elite tournament, the eventual national champion knocked out Cammalleri and Michigan in the semifinals. Drafted by the Kings with their second round selection, 49th overall, in 2001, he now was at a crossroads–stay on one more year and try to finally win it all with the Wolverines or continue in his rapid race to the NHL.
He chose the latter.
"At first, I thought about going back (to Michigan)," said Cammalleri. "Unfortunately, we didn't win it, and I had some decisions to make. L.A. showed some interest, obviously, so I just made the decision to move on at that point. I signed after my junior year."
A professional hockey player at the age 20, Cammalleri's meteoric rise wasn't quite finished. After scoring 14 points in his first 13 games of 2002-03 with the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings' American Hockey League affiliate, the spark plug got the call up to join the big squad. A little more than one month into his first pro campaign, he was in the NHL.
"It was quite a jump," said Cammalleri of his 2002-03 season. "It's the cream of the crop. It's the National Hockey League. You have to be ready to perform at a high level every night. I can't express how much experience means. You come in and try and play as well as you can, but the more experience you get, it just helps so much. There are so many intangibles, both on and off the ice.
"It's definitely a different world here."
Unfortunately, his world, which had been on overdrive since his youth, was about to hit the brakes. Although he played in 26 of 28 games after his recall, Cammalleri was sent back to Manchester on January 9, 2003. He would be recalled on January 17 and then again on January 27, but a concussion suffered in a game against San Jose on the 28th ended his season.
The next year, 2003-04, Cammalleri started the season on the injured list after suffering a knee injury during the preseason. He would eventually split his time between Los Angeles and Manchester, playing 31 games for the NHL squad and 41 in the minors. He then spent the entire 2004-05 campaign back with the Monarchs, where he proved he belonged at the next level, scoring 109 points (46-63-109) in only 79 games.
Used to taking the express lane throughout his hockey career, Cammalleri was forced into a situation where he had to be patient and wait, and more importantly learn.
"Looking back, I appreciated all those experiences because I think they help build character. They helped build experience as a hockey player."
Having used those lessons to now become a mainstay in the L.A. lineup, Cammalleri is not content to relax and enjoy what he's accomplished. In fact, he's still learning, although this time the education is coming from an unlikely, albeit very knowledgeable source, teammate Jeremy Roenick.
"I don't know why," Cammalleri answers when asked why Roenick has taken him under his wing. "We just kind of have similar personalities. We've been hanging out quite a bit. He's my roommate."
As a NHL veteran, Roenick has earned the right to take his own hotel room when the team travels on the road. Instead, he went to the Kings' coaches and asked to be joined with Cammalleri, a kid who used Roenick in his Sega '94 hockey video games while growing up.
"I tell him all the time, 'You were my guy!'" laughs Cammalleri. "We have some fun with that. It's a little weird, but at the same time it's pretty cool. It's a cool life experience to get to know him and get to hang out with him and call him a friend."
These days, every part of Cammalleri's life seems like a cool life experience--even if they didn't happen quite as fast as he expected.