Like Paul Newman's famous face on salad-dressing bottles, Montreal's Michael Cammalleri
someday might be the face on a line of pasta sauces.
For now, though, he's quite settled into becoming one of the key faces on the retooled Montreal Canadiens
"Once a year we go to my (grandmother's) garage in Woodbridge (Ont.) outside Toronto," said the Richmond Hill, Ont., native last week during two-a-day rehab for a knee injury suffered Jan. 30. "The whole family takes 20 bushels of tomatoes and takes turns at making the sauce for the whole year. My mom brings me sauce to this day."
Engage Cammalleri in conversation about the roots -- and routes -- of his scoring proclivities as goes through his seventh NHL season, and it comes down to two basic ingredients: family and the University of Michigan.
"If you look at my family history," said Cammalleri, "we're very strong and tight-knit. My dad's family are immigrants from Sicily. My mom's side is Jewish. My grandparents from Poland and Czechoslovakia were Holocaust survivors. It's a family of deep-rooted closeness and unity coming from very desperate times. It is who I am as a person.
"My mom and dad and sister Melanie are passionate people. My parents have been most concerned about our happiness as children and in our careers. I think of them with a lot of smiles and a lot of hard work."
Smiles and hard work are the essence of the 5-foot-9, 182-pound Cammalleri, who was built from simple staples.
"I was used to five meals a day cooked by my mom," he said.
That was during his teenage years in Tier 2 junior hockey, where at 15 years old he already had decided the route to his dream of playing in the NHL.
"My dad preached that the university route was a good route," said Cammalleri. "The Michigan schools were always in my head. I went with my father to watch a Michigan game at home in the (NCAA) regional. They beat North Dakota and (Yost Arena) almost fell down that night. I said, 'This is where I want to play.' I think I committed to them verbally when I was 15, and went in as an under-ager at 17. I did high school in three years.
"I remember going into (coach Red Berenson
's) office for the first time. He said, 'I'm not going to promise you anything; you play better than a senior, you'll play more than him.' I liked Red's honesty."
How did Cammalleri play over three seasons from 1999-2002 -- the genesis of his current NHL presence?
"When he got the puck he was 6-foot-4," said Berenson of Cammalleri's Ann Arbor time. "Mike was one of those difference-maker players who could beat a player one-on-one and score the big goal. Just a big-time player at the college level who produced and was a great team player. He's at the top end of the offensive (Michigan) echelon with Brendan Morrison
, Mike Comrie
, Mike Knuble
and so on."
Cammalleri's three years were highlighted by consecutive NCAA appearances. And a historic contribution to NCAA history Oct. 1, 2001.
"My freshman year we lost in the regional," said Cammalleri. "The next two years we went to the Frozen Four. The reason you were (at Michigan) was to win a national championship. One generation of players passed that on to the next. I was disappointed I left without a national championship."
He did leave with 65 goals and 66 assists in 110 games.
No three points were bigger than the consecutive ones on that aforementioned October night in a 3-3 tie with Michigan State before the largest crowd ever to see a hockey game, 74,554 in East Lansing. (Ryan Miller
was in goal for the Spartans.)
Cammalleri needed some help to suit up for the most memorable in-season game in NCAA history.
"I re-pulled a hip-flexor muscle before that game and Red said after practice, 'I can't play you, you're on one leg.' I told him it was OK, that I was just babying it. I took a nap before the game and couldn't even raise my leg. I got on the bus and there was tailgating and the bus was shaking; the craziest party I'd ever seen. The adrenaline started kicking in. It's the only time in my life I have to believe in divine intervention. I'm sure there's a medical reason -- I tore through some scar tissues or something. But as I played the injury went away for the rest of the year.
"The game was like playing a game of pond hockey; you could hear the skates and the voices, but it was like being in the middle of a lake in Canada. Then you look up and see 75,000 people and hear roars in the distance. It was like the movie, 'Gladiator,' when (Russell Crowe) looks up and hears 'HURRAHHH.'
"They went in for me that night."
They have been going in for Cammalleri on many nights in the NHL.
"My dad preached that the university route was a good route. The Michigan schools were always in my head. I went with my father to watch a Michigan game at home in the (NCAA) regional. They beat North Dakota and (Yost Arena) almost fell down that night. I said, 'This is where I want to play.'" -- Michael Cammalleri
He had another big three Dec. 4, when Cammalleri made the 100th anniversary celebration of Canadiens hockey a memorable event with a second-period hat trick in a 5-1 win against Boston.
"Maybe it's a zone," said Cammalleri when pressed to explain his big-game outputs. "When you play those really big games, maybe you find some form of 'calm urgency.' When I'm at the top of my game, I do feel that calm urgency. I'm patient with my plays, but do have a sense of urgency. I really look forward to these big-stage games."
In your face or off the faceoff, point-blank or from the point, Cammalleri believes one basic thing about scoring -- and its source for him.
"There is a dynamic to being able to produce consistently," he said. "You need the ability to shoot, to make a move, take the puck to the net, or one-time a puck. Michigan helped me develop that. I would argue that because they allow a player in his crucial developmental years to fully reach their potential as an athlete goes, fully use their skill levels and athletic instincts, that's why so many of us have so much success in the NHL. You need that freedom without restrictions at that age. Then you become the full potential here. Trust me, you learn all those systems things here. But that freedom then has given me the skill-set here to fit into systems and produce."
Cammalleri has fit into every NHL system in which he's played since being taken in the second round (No. 49) by the Kings in the 2001 Entry Draft.
After five seasons in Los Angeles -- including 34 goals and 80 points in 81 games in 2006-07 -- he spent last season with Calgary, where he had career-bests of 39 goals and 82 points in 81 games.
Then over the summer, he signed a lucrative six-year deal with Montreal.
"I had some really good offers, but I liked Montreal's team," said Cammalleri. "Make it to the playoffs and be a contender. At 27 in the prime of my career, I feel I can make the most difference here. I see the pressure of playing in Montreal as a way of fully engaging in my career -- a way of focusing on being the best I can be. I know I'm playing in front of the most passionate hockey people in the world."
Before the 100th anniversary game, Cammalleri stood at center ice in the Bell Centre, flanked by Guy Lafleur
, Larry Robinson
and Ken Dryden, among numerous Canadiens greats. After the game, he stood in Montreal's dressing room flanked by Carey Price
, Tomas Plekanec
and Roman Hamrlik
, among others.
"Wow. Wow," said Cammalleri after the game. "Anybody in the building was pretty fortunate. We were like a bunch of giddy kids in here. We went out and shook a hand, got a glimpse, say hi. I was standing behind (Yvan) Cournoyer and (Dickie) Moore in the picture. The comments they made to me really made me feel like they were just hockey guys who had a lot of fun playing for this organization and won a lot of Stanley Cups because they enjoyed playing the game. It did strike an emotional chord and allows you to play with that sort of emotion."
How does Cammalleri sustain that emotion for the stretch run?
"I don't know if there's been a week that goes by I haven't heard from one guy or another on our team, 'Can you imagine if we won the Cup here?'
"I really believe the best experiences are yet to come in Montreal. I can't wait to have the success we all want there. My dream was to play in the National Hockey League. Then it's about family life and any relationships going on. The happiness comes with smiles -- off wins and family."
All rooted in 20 bushels of tomatoes -- and the University of Michigan.