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Callahan at heart of the young core

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Callahan Recalls Road to NHL

VIDEO: Callahan Highlights

By Dan David,

During the summer, at the height of the NHL off-season, Rangers alternate captain Ryan Callahan will likely be found in one of two places -- the golf course or the gym.

An avid golfer, Callahan loves his time on the links, but he is just as focused and committed to his off-ice training for a new season  -- a reflection of the relentless work ethic that has defined the 25-year-old winger ever since he made his NHL debut four seasons ago.

“I'm gearing up for a hard training camp,” said Callahan, who has spent the off-season in his native Rochester, N.Y. “But from previous summers, not too much has changed for me workout-wise or in terms of conditioning. I think in previous summers I pushed myself hard and got myself ready for camp. It's just status quo with the way I lift and the conditioning that I do."

A year ago, Ryan Callahan became the Rangers' youngest alternate captain since Brian Leetch -- a testimony to how much he brings to the team at 25.
The thought of Callahan demanding more of himself hardly comes as a surprise to anyone who has watched him play on a regular basis. In each of the past two years, he has dominated voting for the fan-selected Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, which recognizes a player who "goes above and beyond the call of duty". Last spring, he became the award's first back-to-back winner in eight years, and he now has a chance to be the first player since Adam Graves to win it three times in a row.

Rangers head coach John Tortorella has marveled not only at Callahan's work ethic but also at his ability to behave in a truly professional manner despite his young age. At last year's training camp, the Rangers' head coach discussed how impressed he was with Callahan and how he really "gets it" in terms of what is required of an exemplary pro athlete.

Shortly after camp ended, Callahan was named an alternate captain, making him the Rangers' youngest player to wear a letter full-time since Brian Leetch in 1991-92. Rangers captain Chris Drury is almost nine years older than Callahan, while fellow alternate Vinny Prospal is a full decade older.

Becoming a team leader and a 2010 U.S. Olympian at 24 were two truly remarkable achievements for a player taken in the fourth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. Indeed, even after a 36-goal season with the Ontario Hockey League's Guelph Storm in 2003-04, Callahan was so uncertain of his pro potential back then that he chose to skip the draft rather than sit around waiting for his name to be called.

Since his first NHL game on Dec. 1, 2006, in the Buffalo Sabres' arena where he had attended games as a youngster, Callahan has gone on to score 53 goals and 96 points in 224 games. That's more goals, points and games than half of the first-round picks from his draft year, which is a reminder of just how much determination and character count when it comes to NHL success.

Callahan’s silver medal from last year’s Olympics is another reminder of what his work ethic has meant, because none of the two dozen Americans drafted before him in 2004 were in Vancouver with him six years later.

Both Tortorella and Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather often speak about the Rangers' young core, and creating an environment where a group of talented players grow up together has been a major focus for the organization. This core group of veteran Rangers under 27 who began their pro careers in the organization and have yet to reach their prime includes three forwards -- Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Artem Anisimov -- and four defensemen -- Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Matt Gilroy.

The young-core philosophy is a sound one. While some championship teams have been built without a large number of homegrown players, every NHL team that has been successful for any length of time could point to multiple players who came of age together in the organization. Callahan himself is a big believer in that formula.

"I think it means a lot because you get really used to the guys that you are around," said Callahan, the first member of this group to assume an official leadership position on the team. "We have grown up through the system together, starting from the prospect camps when we were drafted. I think that's a big part of why we're going to have success in the future. We have gone through these bumps in the road and all these learning curves all together, and we've had to lean on each other and support each other through different times."

In such an environment, a frustrating year can actually have a long-term benefit, as core players learn more about what it takes to win. Callahan is hoping all of the Rangers, particularly those who have been together for several years, will take the 2009-10 experience of missing the playoffs to heart.

"I think one of the biggest things about last year is that even though we didn't make the playoffs, we have all of these core guys coming back and we'll use that as motivation," said Callahan. "Everybody knows what we went through last year and what a disappointment it was at the end of the year. So it's pretty important that we're all still together and we all can look back on previous years and what we've been through together.

"I think we're all definitely a lot more hungry. It was tough and I know, personally, it has been a long summer. I think the biggest thing is coming back and not looking at not making the playoffs as a negative, but to turn it around and take it as a positive and as a learning experience."

Callahan knows exactly what he learned last April, when a playoff berth was lost in the final round of a shootout on the final day of the season.

"We started off the season great, and then we had that little dip in the middle, and then we ended the season great. I think it really shows how we have to be consistent throughout the whole year and that Game 50 is just as important as Game 82. It doesn't matter what game it is," he said. "I think that's part of the learning curve and part of us being a young team and growing up together as a young core. We know we have to improve not only for us, but for the whole Rangers organization. We have something to prove coming into this year."

While working out in Rochester this summer, Callahan has paid close attention to the Blueshirts' off-season moves and looks forward to meeting all of the new players who will be at training camp.

Ryan Callahan's fearless style on the ice drives him to take on all comers regardless of size, including 6-foot-6 Philadelphia defenseman Chris Pronger.
"Obviously, we have signed some key guys. We also brought some guys back that we needed to bring back that were already on the team, so it's definitely an exciting time going into next year," Callahan said. "I know personally that I can't wait to get back there and get going again."

Callahan is particularly excited about the newcomers' potential contributions to a Rangers team with 17 returning veterans.

"I think (Alexander) Frolov is a really talented player. We definitely needed some more offense coming to the team, and I think he'll bring that," said Callahan. "Then there's a guy like (Martin) Biron, who I actually just met in Rochester about a week or two ago at a charity event. He seems like a really great guy, and he's going to help Hank out and give him some support where he can take some more games off than he normally would, which I think will help us at the end of the year. And a guy like (Derek) Boogaard speaks for himself in what he does and what he brings to the table."

When he isn't working out this summer, Callahan has been on the golf course or spending time on his boat. Despite those distractions, he can't stop thinking about the training camp that lies ahead.

"I think a big part of why we started off the year so well last year was that everybody came in early and was prepared and ready to go right from day one of camp," said Callahan. "Hopefully, we'll have the same result going into this year."

Always up for a challenge, he also looks forward to a spirited fight for roster spots, particularly among the forwards.

"With some of our signings and some prospects coming up, I think there are a lot of guys competing for those 12 forward spots," he said. "I think it's going to be a healthy competition, and I think it only makes you better when you know you're competing against guys, and you know you're going to have to push yourself and push the other guys to make the team and be in the lineup every night. I think that's definitely going to be an interesting thing throughout camp -- to see how guys respond to that, how guys compete for jobs, and what comes out of it."
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