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For Cammalleri, the sky's the limit

by Doug Ward

After 20 games, Mike Cammalleri has 12 goals, which places him in the top 10 in the League and puts him on pace for 49 this year.
On most days, there are five unoccupied lockers in the Los Angeles Kings’ El Segundo, Calif., training center. One is symbolically reserved for each of the franchise’s icons: Rogie Vachon, Dave Taylor, Luc Robitaille, Marcel Dionne and Wayne Gretzky.

Today, however, things are different. Outside, a heavy marine layer has engulfed the Kings’ facility, and inside, Mike Cammalleri similarly has encroached upon the cubicle reserved for Gretzky. The Kings’ 25-year-old left winger begins an interview sitting directly beneath his own dressing stall, but, as if he were on a Ouija board, Cammalleri mysteriously has gravitated toward the abandoned locker to the immediate right of his own. Now, Cammalleri is stationed directly beneath the area reserved for hockey’s all-time leading scorer.

“Like I told the other guys,” Cammalleri says, staring up at a nameplate with W. Gretzky stenciled into it, “if I walk in and no one is here, I sometimes sit there and I pretend it’s my stall.”

Call it method acting.

It wasn’t so long ago that Cammalleri – generously listed at 5-foot-9 – was pretending he belonged in the NHL. Now, he does. There also was a time when he imagined his name listed among the NHL’s top goal scorers. Now it is.

After 20 games, Cammalleri has 12 goals, which places him in the top 10 in the League and puts him on pace for 49 this year. A year ago, Cammalleri led the Kings in scoring with 80 points (34 goals, 46 assists). He’s been hot lately, picking up six points (two goals, four assists) in his last seven games.

That Cammalleri would be drawn to Gretzky’s retired locker stall should come as no surprise. Like Gretzky, he’s an intelligent player with a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He’s also committed to working hard to get better.

“I’ve tried to do my best to improve every year since I was a little kid,” he says.

Kings coach Marc Crawford thinks it might make more sense if Cammalleri were attracted to the empty stall reserved for Luc Robitaille. Like Robitaille before him, Cammalleri is a winger who will pay a price to score a goal.

“With Mike,” Crawford says, “the biggest factor is the desire to score. Luc always had a great desire to score, too. He paid a price to get into position to score and wanted to shoot. Luc had a good selfishness about his play with the puck, and Mike has the exact same traits.”

“I watched Luc for a long time here and played with him for a few years,” Cammalleri said. “I listened to him and I learned a lot from him.”

Cammalleri is built like “Rudy” (5-foot-nothing), and, like the famous Notre Dame walk-on, is obsessed with success. He graduated from his Ontario high school in three years so he could attend the University of Michigan early.

He arrived in Ann Arbor as a 17-year-old. Spending three years on a college campus helped him learn how to learn. At least some of his early season success, he says, can be attributed to a summer spent working on simple fundamentals.

“One thing we get away from sometimes once you get to the NHL is working on the basics,” he says. “I did a lot of puck handling and skill work this summer which I feel has made me more confident with the puck.”

Still, how is it that a player so small can be such a big scorer?

“I’m not big?” Cammalleri asks, doing his best Fred Willard deadpan. “I thought I was big.”

He’s kidding, but could it be that refusing to acknowledge his own physical limitations is, in fact, his secret?

“That is the secret,” he finally confesses.

Although Cammalleri is not tall, he plays big. He can’t look Zdeno Chara or Chris Pronger in the eye, but Cammalleri looks like he probably could bench press them.

If you’re starting to suspect that Cammalleri is one of those guys that joins Gold’s Gym in a desperate effort to compensate for being vertically challenged, save yourself the psychobabble. Cammalleri will come right out and confirm your suspicions.

“I’m a shorter player,” he says, “so I tried 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.”

There is a defiant nature to Cammalleri’s game. His coach likens him to Robitaille, and there also are traces of Doug Gilmour’s relentlessness (“It’s obviously very flattering to be compared to Doug Gilmour,” he says) in his game. Cammalleri, however, says he tries to play like Joe Sakic.

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

“If you think of yourself as a small player,” he says, “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 everybody else.”

In the NHL, where players like Chara and Pronger loom large, remembering to forget can be tricky.

“I think he gets reminded of his size every time he comes up against one of those big defensemen,” Crawford says with a chuckle.

In addition to a short memory, Cammalleri has that other intangible on his side, too.

“I love to score,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been the type to shy away from any controversy, whether it be in front of the net or wherever it may be. I actually find it gets me in the game more. I don’t mind taking and getting my nose dirty a little bit, so I don’t mind going to the net.”

Part of Cammalleri’s success also can be traced to a burgeoning chemistry with linemates Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Crawford would like to believe his top line could develop together, rather than being broken up, as is so often the case in the NHL.

“I think what happens now is that so many teams have loaded up one line and sometimes you need to balance your lines out,” Crawford says. “We’ll be able to keep that line together, providing we get some secondary scoring from other sources. So a lot of that responsibility falls on other players. We’re quite confident that that group can be a very good scoring line if we kept them together for long periods of time.”

The line features a nice balance of playmaker, scorer and grinder.

“Anze is a big centerman who carries the puck through the neutral zone like a seasoned veteran and he’s only in his second year,” Cammalleri says. “Dustin loves to play the game, too, and he’s a big, strong, power forward.”

The Kings’ current identity is as one of the NHL’s teams of the future, but Cammalleri believes that future can be now.

Having a finisher like Cammalleri on your line can make you a better playmaker or more productive grinder.

“Mike is not the biggest guy,” Brown says, “but he loves to score and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to score. When you have a player like that, you want to get him the puck.”

Cammalleri’s breakthrough has not coincided with a golden era of hockey in Los Angeles. Consider this: The Boston Red Sox have won two World Series titles since the Kings last appeared in the Stanley Cup Payoffs, in 2002.

And New England fans think their team is the one that’s cursed? Cammalleri hasn’t even participated in a Stanley Cup Playoff game. He is, however, part of the young nucleus that has brought a renewed sense of optimism to L.A. The Kings might not yet be a playoff team, but with Kopitar, Brown, Jack Johnson, Alexander Frolov and goaltender-in-grooming Jonathan Bernier (their first round pick in 2006), they have hope.

Brown recently signed a six-year contract extension worth more than $19 million to remain in L.A. Will the Kings move to lock up the rest of their young nucleus?

“If you asked the young guys on this team, myself included,” Cammalleri says, “we’d like nothing more than to see that happen. But I don’t make those decisions.”

Cammalleri lost his arbitration case last summer, making him a bargain at $3.1 million this year. After this season, he has at least one more with the Kings, at $3.6 million. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

With so many good young players developing, there’s a sense that the Kings have a chance to be very good in another year or two. Assuming, of course, that their young players continue to develop, and that Bernier or Jason LaBarbera can solve the franchise’s perennial goaltending woes.

The Kings’ current identity is as one of the NHL’s teams of the future, but Cammalleri believes that future can be now.

“I like that perception (that we’re an up-and-coming team),” Cammalleri says, “but let’s not disappoint anybody. Let’s be what everybody has been saying for years that we can be. I don’t see us being so far away from that.”

On those days when Cammalleri takes a place near Gretzky’s locker, he can feel him and his teammates easing little bit closer to greatness.

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