Mitch Callahan knows how to play hockey only one way – full bore: unflinching, unrelenting and unstoppable.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
No Fear is an American lifestyle brand that is associated with extreme sports and that helped popularize platitudes like “Pain Is Temporary, Glory Is Forever,” “Second Place Is The First Loser” and “Blood Makes Great Mouthwash.”
The action apparel seller usually caters to skateboarders, surfers and motocross competitors, but if the company is ever interested in expanding into hockey, it needs to look no further than Griffins forward Mitch Callahan for a spokesman.
Callahan already knows no fear. When you’ve been hit in the face with a puck, not once but twice, and you’re still willing to park your mug in front of the goal with a 100-mph slapshot heading in your direction, you’ve got some guts. And Callahan has plenty.
“My favorite spot is in the front of the net,” said Callahan, who has lost track of exactly how many teeth he has actually lost. “It’s my bread and butter, so I try to play with no fear. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll go into the corners with anybody. I don’t care how big the other guy is. I have more scars than I can count.”
Callahan unwittingly displayed his toughness for the whole world to see nearly two years ago when he tweeted a photo of his bloodied mouth after being hit by a Ryan Sproul slap shot. Already missing his two front teeth, he lost seven or eight more and suffered a fractured jaw along with the wrath of his coach, who disapproved of his shocking selfie.
Then a week before this past Christmas, Callahan was struck in the face again, this time in practice when a Martin Frk shot deflected off a stick and caught him square in the mouth. He lost another tooth and his jaw was broken in two places.
While Callahan shrugs off the latest injury as bad luck, his coach and teammates marvel at his tenacity and toughness.
“He’s a tough cookie,” said Griffins head coach Todd Nelson. “When he broke his jaw at the morning skate, he still wanted to play that night. That just shows you the heart and desire that he has, and as long as he has that fire in his belly, he’s going to have a nice career.”
Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan just smiles when asked about Callahan. “He’s definitely an entertaining guy to have on your team. He’s a throwback kind of player. He just gets hit by pucks and carries on. He’s not afraid, and he doesn’t care too much about his body. He got the nickname of Caveman for a reason.”
With his disheveled long hair and toothless grin, the happy-go-lucky Callahan cheerfully accepts the ribbing of his teammates, although he will gleefully chirp back and call others “soft” whenever he feels like poking back.
That’s the way it always has been for Callahan, who was actually thrown out of daycare when he was little. “Some kid stole my ball, and I punched him and got kicked out,” Callahan said.
Even then, Callahan was a rabble-rousing runt, too little to be feared but too tough to be ignored.
“I think it goes back to when I first started playing hockey,” said Callahan, who was coached by his father, a semi-pro hockey player back in Scarborough, Ontario, an eastern suburb of Toronto, where he had fought Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi in summer leagues.
Mike Callahan was a plumber by trade and a Canadian by roots, so there was little question that his only son would play hockey, even after moving to California so that Mitch’s mom, Kelly, could be closer to her three sisters.
“My dad had that attitude where you don’t take crap from anybody,” Callahan recalled. “He taught me the old Canadian way where if you dared cross the red line in warmups, you deserved a punch in the mouth. I remember this one time where there was this big guy doing it, so my dad told me that I should go fight the guy.”
With his parents not the most well off, Callahan grew up in a somewhat shady part of Whittier, a city in Los Angeles county that had more than its quotient of gangs and crime.
Although not exactly a juvenile delinquent, Callahan admits that he got into his share of scraps. In middle school, he was suspended 30-some days one year for fighting. “I was getting into fights left and right, mostly to protect myself and my friends,” Callahan recalled. “It was not gang-related, but it was close enough.”
There were metal detectors at the high school in Whittier, so Callahan instead attended high school in nearby La Habra, west of Whittier. Not that it was much better. “My freshman year, a boy got caught with a gun in his locker,” he recalled. “Another kid got caught trying to bring a gun into school. That’s the kind of neighborhood I grew up in.”
At the age of 16, Callahan led the Los Angeles Junior Kings in scoring and later earned an invitation to the training camp of the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Hockey League. He made the team as a walk-on, then helped the Rockets win the WHL championship before losing in the Memorial Cup to the Taylor Hall-led Windsor Spitfires.
Callahan posted respectable numbers during his three years in junior hockey, but it was his eagerness to go into the hard places that set him apart.
A hard-nosed kid who was willing to stand up not only for himself but also his teammates, Callahan displayed a combination of grit and gumption, which led the Detroit Red Wings to take a chance on him in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
Callahan got into 15 fights during his rookie year in Grand Rapids, when he recorded six goals and three assists in 48 games. He tempered the tough guy persona during his second season with the Griffins, when he upped his point production to 11 goals and nine assists in 71 games before ending the playoffs with the Calder Cup in his hands.
He began to realize that he could be more valuable to the team if he stayed out of the penalty box.
During his third year, 2013-14, Callahan tallied 26 goals and 18 assists in 70 games while limiting his penalty minutes to 51. The Red Wings rewarded his play, writing his name on the lineup card on March 25, 2014, his first and only NHL game to date.
“We had an off-day and I got a call from (Jeff) Blashill at 8 a.m.,” Callahan said. “People who know me know that I don’t wake up that early on an off-day, but he told me I was going up. When I checked the roster, they still had a bunch of guys active, so I wasn’t sure I would be playing, but he told me they said I would.”
Callahan remembers spotting his dad during the pregame warmups. “When I looked up in the stands, I saw my old man with his arms up in the air, so it was pretty cool,” he said. “I had butterflies and the jitters going through the whole first period. I couldn’t really feel my legs, but eventually it felt more like a normal game. At the same time, I was just taking it all in.”
He played 13 shifts for 9:01 of ice time while getting under the skin of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He recorded two hits and one penalty, and he nearly scored a goal. “I just tried to be physical and get guys off their game,” he said.
Last season looked like it might be his breakout campaign, but he tore his ACL on Feb. 13, 2015. “There was a Luke Bryan concert the night before, so the ice was pretty soft,” he recalled. “I was just trying to do a tight turn on my skates, my toe dug too deep into the ice and hit concrete. When my knee didn’t follow, I felt a pop.”
Callahan was sidelined for the rest of the season, which was a difficult pill to swallow since his teammates seemed ready to make a good push in the Calder Cup Playoffs. There’s little doubt that the Griffins could have used his sandpaper-style play during their postseason run, which ended in Utica during the Western Conference Finals.
“The playoffs are the reason why we play hockey – they’re the most fun,” he said. “Watching the games was bittersweet for me because the guys were winning and I wanted to be out there helping them to win.”
Callahan didn’t start skating again until last July 4. He admits that it took awhile for him to find his legs. “I’m pretty sure that (Griffins goalie) Tom McCollum would have smoked me in a sprint,” he chuckles as he think back to last summer. “In fact, I didn’t really feel like I was 100 percent back this season until shortly before I broke my jaw.”
He could hardly believe it when he got hit in the mouth with a puck for a second time. “I’m told that bad luck comes in threes, so hopefully no more,” he said.
Callahan has no plans to change the way he plays. He ditched the face protector he wore as soon as he was medically cleared. “It’s hard to see the puck by my feet,” he explained, not to mention that he didn’t care for the grief he had to endure from the opposition. “I can’t fight, so they called me ‘The Pretender.’ They don’t like me chirping with the face protector.”
And he’s still parking himself in front of the goal at every opportunity, even though he may be a little more gun-shy now. “Sometimes when Frk is teeing one up, it gets a little scary because you can’t see the puck, it’s coming too fast,” he said. “I just close my eyes and hope it doesn’t hit me.”
While the 24-year-old Callahan is the Griffins’ active leader in goals, points and penalty minutes, he is still determined to show that he can play in the NHL. “Hopefully, I can stick around this organization,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to get the chance to play for the team that drafted me. Of course, if another team is willing to give me my NHL opportunity, I will gladly take that, too.”
His injuries the past three seasons have done nothing to lessen his desire.
“Guys talk about going to Europe to make a little more coin and I’ve talked to my parents and girlfriend about it,” he said. “I’ll take less money for now because the NHL is my dream. A lot of people are in it for the money, but I’m still in it for my dream and I’m not ready to give up my NHL dream.”
Earning a spot in the NHL may only be a matter of time, according to those around him.
“He’s had to battle back from injuries, which shows his character,” Nelson said. “When he’s playing hard, he’s inspiring. He’s hard not to like.”