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Wolf Pack rookie Callahan taking AHL by storm

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

At every stop of his career, Ryan Callahan has not only made an impression, but left an indelible mark.

In four seasons with the Ontario Hockey League's Guelph Storm, Callahan, a two-year captain, set team records for career regular-season goals (130) and career combined regular-season and postseason goals (151). Last season, he became only the third player in Storm history to reach the 50 goal mark, tying Mike Prokopec for the second highest single season total with 52.

"I played four years in Guelph, and I was very lucky," says Callahan. "It was my home away from home, a great place to play and last year, breaking all those records, it was a good way to go out."

Completing his final junior season with 52 goals and 84 points in 62 games, Callahan also won the 2005-06 Leo Lalonde Memorial Trophy as the OHL's top overage player.

"It was a very big honor," he explains. "There were a lot of great overagers in the league, and to be recognized as the best by the league general managers, it's an admirable award and certainly an honor."

Callahan's remarkable 2005-06 campaign almost never happened, since the Rangers' 2004 fourth-round pick had the option of turning pro prior to the season. Instead, he took an unconventional route by returning to major junior for an overage campaign.

"I went back because I thought it would be best for my development," he says. "I still had a year left in which I could sign with the Rangers, and I figured I would get more ice time and be able to play in all situations if I went back to Guelph."

It turned out to be a wise decision for Callahan, voted one of the "Smartest Players" in last year's OHL coaches poll. He also finished in the top three vote-getters as the league's"Most Dangerous in the Goal Area" and the "Best Defensive Forward."

The biggest question for Callahan was how quickly he would be able to translate his game to a higher level. So far, he has been the brightest star for a young Hartford Wolf Pack Team.

Callahan's transition to the professional ranks began this past summer. Returning to the Madison Square Garden Training Center for his first experience since undergoing off-season surgery, he was disappointed with his performance in September's main camp with the Rangers. But rather than feel discouraged, he refused to let it get him down.

"I felt I played well, but not as well as I am capable," said the 5-foo-11, 185-pounder. "Not playing in the Blue-White scrimmage or any of the exhibition games, I tried not to look at it as a negative but as a positive. I went to Hartford and had a strong camp, and felt really good out there."

While with the Rangers, Callahan made a point of absorbing as much knowledge as he could.

"At camp I tried to watch not just one guy, but a bunch of people." he explains. "I definitely focused on (Brendan) Shanahan, and I think a lot of other guys did, too. He was my favorite player growing up, so I talked to him and he gave me advice on how to be on and off the ice. He said how important it was to play hard and compete and work to get better every day. Everyone at this stage is skilled, but you need to do what you can and compete hard. That was really good advice and it has helped me day by day."

In Hartford, Callahan is in a unique situation, surrounded with teammates he has played with in the past. This has admittedly eased his transition from the major junior level to the AHL.

"I have played with some of the guys before," he said, "and it's pretty cool to play with them now on the pro level. I played with Al Montoya on the national team, and Daniel Girardi was my teammate for a few years at Guelph. They both have helped me adjust. I am living with Girardi as well, so that's nice to have. It's important to have."

Boasting an extremely young team stocked with future NHL talent rather than career AHL players, Hartford has struggled in the early part of its season. Slowly but surely, however, the Pack seem to be coming around, and Callahan has taken a leading role.

"It took a little bit of time to kind of find myself," he said. "But the last couple of games I feel like I am a bigger and better fit for the team. It is good to play on a line with Dwight Helminen and Lauri Korpikoski. They are great play-makers, have phenomenal speed, and we have been a good fit. They are both smart players and it's a compliment to play with them. Helminen has really helped both of us adjust to playing in the AHL."

In 13 games this season, Callahan has nine goals and three assists for 12 points and 16 penalty minutes, with his nine goals and 12 points leading the team. As of mid-November, he ranked fifth in the AHL with five power play goals, eighth with two game-winning goals and was 10th among rookies in points.

"I am scoring in different ways," he said. "I have gotten a few of them off rebounds by going to the net, and I had one off a slap shot from the high slot. I have had a bunch while on the power play, so it's just been a little bit of everything and I like that."

The highlight of his season so far was a hat trick in Hartford's 9-3 blowout win over the San Antonio Rampage on Nov. 11. Each goal came via the power play, and the hat trick displayed Callahan's unique mixture of grit and skill. Parked in front of the net, he used a bevy of moves to net his three goals.

"The first was a shot from the point, and I was just there for a rebound," he recalled. "On the second, the puck took a kind of funny bounce off the boards and I was at the side of the net and put it in. On the last one I got the puck in front of the net right at the goalies pads, and I pulled a little toe drag and got it past him. To get a hat trick feels really good, and I am really honored to earn it at this level.

"It really is great to be here. I am ecstatic. My parents come up a lot and they get to watch me play. When I was a kid we used to go to a lot of AHL games and watch the Rochester Americans. The game is a lot faster and the guys are a lot bigger. But that is to be excepted when you make a jump up to any level and I am getting used to it. It's great to now be playing in it."

Despite his rapid ascension in the AHL, Callahan insists he isn't about to get ahead of himself.

"I follow the Rangers and what's going on up there, but that is not what I am thinking about," he said. "What happens up there is not something I can control, so I don't think about it. I focus on the Wolf Pack and our team down here. My goal is to try hard and go out and compete every game. Everyone is skilled at this level, so I want to just battle, compete, and leave it all on the ice. Competing and working hard, that is my only goal. Coach Schoenfeld has been giving me good feedback, and I trust him."

Still, when the day comes that Callahan is called up to New York, it will be extremely special for the young man who grew up a few hours away and always considered himself a Rangers fan.

"When I was drafted, I was ecstatic," he explained. "I grew up rooting for them living in Rochester, and to go to a class organization and an Original Six team, it means a lot. Not a lot of people get to chase their childhood dream, so it means a lot. A lot!"
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