The spotlight of Madison Square Garden can be an intimidating place for any NHL rookie, but it can also be the stage upon which great careers are launched. History has shown that a young Rangers player who quickly succeeds on the MSG ice can become a fan favorite for many years to come.
|Ryan Callahan, right, is congratulated by Sean Avery after scoring one of his goals against Boston on St. Patrick's Day.
The recent St. Patrick's Day rout of Boston, a 7-0 win in which the Blueshirts dominated every minute of play, provided such a moment. Rangers fans had plenty of players to rave about, but the one who really captured their eye was a kid from Rochester who made a big impression that night, four days before turning 22.
It was only the fourth game of Ryan Callahan's NHL career and just his second at The Garden. Earlier in the season, he was called up to face the Islanders on Dec. 19, but three months later he was in a very different situation -- a late-season emergency recall pressed into duty to cover for several injured veterans.
Callahan did much more than just fill a roster spot in that March 17 breakout game. In only 12:05 of ice time against Boston, the rookie scored two goals, dazzling fans with his courage in front of the net and his remarkable hockey sense that seemed to draw him to the puck like a magnet on every play. The crowd was even chanting his name at one point, and by the end of the game, no one was more surprised by what had happened than Callahan himself.
"It was an unbelievable experience," he said of scoring those first two NHL goals. "That atmosphere in there is second to none. And to be able to just skate on the ice with so much tradition there is something I'll never forget."
Since that day, Callahan has played regularly for the Rangers, seeing as much as 15:23 of ice time just two nights later and taking a regular shift on a line with Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan. His role on the team could change again when forward Marcel Hossa returns from an injury, but there is no doubt Callahan has made his mark and has a bright future ahead of him.
"We anticipate that he's going to continue to make the contribution that we're looking for," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "Whether or not he's in the lineup on a regular basis remains to be seen, but there's no reason to doubt why not."
Indeed, Renney already has high praise for the young winger, who is already a hit with the Garden Faithful.
"He's played really well," said Renney. "I think Ryan is a very smart player. He's an intuitive player on the ice, where he doesn't have to think. It's instinctive for him. That's his level of hockey sense, and he's got all of that. He does have good puck skills. Soft skills, I call them, where you can pass and receive the puck well. He knows sort of where to go. He can keep it under control and he can anticipate well. So from those points of view he's very good for us."
Callahan made his NHL debut on Dec. 1 at Buffalo, just a short drive from his hometown. While it was a dream come true to have his family and friends in the arena, he saw limited action in both that game and the one against the Islanders. It was not until the call-up earlier this month that he got his first chance to shine, and he now appreciate the NHL glimpses he got earlier in the season.
"It made me a lot more comfortable when I got here," he said. "I knew all the guys, and it wasn't my first or second game, so it was a lot more comfortable out there. I really think it helped me out playing those games early on in the season."
Rangers fans have good reason to be excited about Callahan's arrival, not just because of his great individual skills but also because he's a home-grown player from the Rangers developmental system. Just as it was in the early 1990s, when future All-Stars Doug Weight, Tony Amonte and Sergei Zubov all arrived at MSG, the Rangers' pipeline is stockpiled with up-and-coming draft picks poised to begin their NHL careers in New York.
Callahan was chosen in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, which could be remembered as one of the great drafts in Rangers history based on the progress of those picks over the past three years. With his next game, Callahan will become the first member of that very deep 2004 draft class to play 10 games in the NHL. He truly does represent the wave of the future for the Blueshirts.
Before his latest call-up, Callahan was one of five 2004 draftees playing a major role with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers' AHL affiliate. Other Pack stars drafted that year include goalie Al Montoya and forwards Lauri Korpikoski, Dane Byers and Brandon Dubinsky, who also made his Rangers debut this season. These players had a big role in the Wolf Pack's amazing surge this season, which has seen Hartford go 37-15-2 over its last 54 games.
While the other 2004 draftees continue to prepare themselves the NHL, they can draw inspiration from Callahan. That's because the way the Rangers brought Callahan along – two brief call-ups before the longer stay – could be the blueprint for others.
"You obviously hope that people don't get into the lineup because of injury," said Renney. But having said that it's clearly what happened here. What we're really happy with is the fact that we stayed with our plan of making sure these youngsters went to Hartford and played a lot under every circumstance. We could have felt the pressure of putting them in earlier in the year and likely would not have had what we have right now. That's because they would have played diminished minutes and maybe lost some confidence. That would not have worked. I think our plan of how we've worked with these youngsters is important to recognize."
Callahan didn't take long to win the respect of his NHL teammates, who appreciated his contribution in relief of injured regulars.
Callahan alone makes the case for the depth of the Rangers' 2004 draft class. Amazingly, he was the ninth player chosen by the team that year, managing to slide all the way into the draft's fourth round despite an outstanding 2003-04 season with the Ontario Hockey League's Guelph Storm, which saw him average a point per game.
The Rangers' willingness to take him in 2004 was also an example of astute drafting, because Callahan had slipped through the entire draft one year earlier in his first year of eligibility and would have become a free agent, like his former Guelph teammate Dan Girardi, had he not been picked the second time around.
The Rangers scouts saw what 29 NHL teams missed. Callahan was a player on his way up, and in the two seasons after being drafted, he showed even greater potential.
In 2004-05, he scored 28 goals and 54 points for Guelph despite taking part of the season off to play for Team USA at the World Junior Championships. Last season, he passed up a chance to join the Hartford Wolf Pack on an AHL contract and instead returned to Guelph for an overage year in junior. He truly flourished in that situation, ranking fourth in the OHL with 52 goals and winning the league's Leo Lalonde Memorial Trophy, given annually to the top overage player.
The decision to return to major junior for an overage season worked out perfectly for Callahan. Last May, following his big year with Guelph, Callahan signed his first pro contract with the Blueshirts.
"It was definitely a tough decision to make," Callahan said of going back to junior. "You obviously want to play pro hockey, but I think it was the right decision for me. I think I developed as a player down there and ended up getting the contract that I wanted, so it was good."
Callahan reported to Hartford during the Pack's 2006 playoff run but did not see any action. By the time last September's Rangers training camp rolled around, he was eager to make a lasting impression. His stay there was relatively brief, as he was among the first players assigned to Hartford for the start of the 2006-07 season.
"I went back down to Hartford and then did everything I could to get back up," he said of his mindset after training camp. "I'd had a taste of it, and that made me that much more hungry for it."
Once he joined the Pack, Callahan quickly went on a scoring spree, netting 15 goals in his first 19 games, including a pair of hat tricks in November that helped him earn his first call-up to the NHL and an eventual spot in the AHL All-Star Game in Toronto. He later had another hat trick in January, and nearly two weeks after coming up to the Rangers for his current stay, Callahan remains the Wolf Pack's team leader with 35 goals as a rookie.
Scoring all those goals didn't hurt his chances of returning to New York, but Callahan said he was "pleasantly surprised" by how frequently he found the net.
"I knew there was going to be an adjustment to the pro game, obviously, but in juniors I put a lot of pucks in the net, too," he said. "So going into Hartford, that's what I wanted to do."
Callahan's adjustment to the Rangers has been easier because several of his former teammates from Hartford have also been called up during the season. When he rejoined the team earlier this month, Callahan found himself in a locker room that included Girardi, Brad Isbister, Dubinsky and goalie Stephen Valiquette. All four had spent a large part of the season with him in Hartford.
"Coming in the room and seeing a lot of familiar faces that you've played with all year definitely makes it a little bit easier," Callahan said. "I think it shows how well we've been playing in Hartford and how good we are down there to have guys coming up and being able to really contribute."
The NHL transition was also boosted by the similarity between the Rangers' and Wolf Pack's style of play.
"It's very similar. It's pretty much the same system," said Callahan of what he learned in Hartford. "Little tweaks here and there are different, but when I got here I pretty much felt real comfortable in this system because of that. I really developed a lot in Hartford. The coaching staff down there does a great job, and I think I developed my game all around, defensively, so I think it's really helped me out."
While Callahan has several friends among the ex-Hartford players in the Rangers' locker room, he is also making a big impression on the veteran. His new linemate Shanahan already sings the praises of the rookie. The two were teamed up for the first time against Philadelphia, Shanahan's first game back after recovering from a concussion.
"What I saw from him in that first game was tremendous," said Shanahan. "He's got a nose for the net, and he obviously scored a lot of goals in Hartford, and he's got an NHL-caliber shot. So as far as offensive instincts, he's pretty good."
Simply playing with Shanahan has been the thrill of a lifetime for Callahan, who was just a 2-year-old when the future Hall of Famer entered the NHL.
Callahan shows little hesitation on the ice and is not afraid to tangle with more experienced players.
"I grew up a Rangers fan and a Sabres fan, too," said Callahan. "Pat LaFontaine was one of my favorite players, actually. Shanahan, too, even though he wasn't a Ranger at that time."
Shanahan is much more than a linemate for Callahan. He is also a kind of mentor
"Right from the first call-up when I played in Buffalo, he's talked to me all the way through it," Callahan said. "And I think that's really special. Coming in here you feel really comfortable when a guy like Shanahan comes up to you and talks to you. I think it's going to help me out a lot with my play.
Callahan couldn't ask for a better role model, but even without the benefit of a superstar on his line, he would be in great shape for a player his age. Renney said that Callahan's rapid ascent in the AHL is the best evidence of the impact he could have in hockey's top league.
"I think he was probably a couple of years away from reaching this level at the start of the season, but he was very good in junior and water always seems to find its level," Renney said. "My hope is that we've found another NHLer here. And I would want to see that in a couple of years from now he's doing what he did in junior for us here in New York."