Mitch Callahan knows his role and feels lucky anytime he’s asked to play the enforcer.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
“A good man always knows his limitations.” – spoken by Clint Eastwood in his role as “Dirty” Harry Callahan
When Mitch Callahan led the Los Angeles Junior Kings in scoring at age 16, he thought it might be the start of something good.
It was only Midget AAA hockey, but it was a turning point for the Whittier-born boy who grew up enjoying skateboarding, surfing and the sand of sunny Southern California beaches.
“That was the summer I really put my nose to the grindstone and thought I might be able to make a future out of hockey,” said Callahan, who subsequently earned an invitation to the training camp of the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Hockey League.
Callahan eventually made the Rockets as a walk-on and would become the team’s most improved player.
Although he posted respectable point totals during his three years in junior hockey, it wasn’t Callahan’s goal-scoring abilities that impressed people. It was the things he did when he didn’t have the puck that made him special, according to his Kelowna coach.
“We wanted him to be good at both ends of the ice, to work harder on his defensive game while maintaining the edge and toughness he plays with,” Ryan Huska told the Kelowna Capital News.
Callahan’s gritty style caught the attention of the Detroit Red Wings, who decided to select the young forward with their sixth-round pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
Although not the biggest prospect – at 6-foot, 200-pounds, Callahan can hardly be called imposing – he is a hard-nosed kid who is willing to stand up not only for himself but also for his teammates.
Huska said Callahan learned his limitations and became a better player because of it.
“The difference was, he began fighting on his own terms and when the team needed him to, not whenever anyone asked him to—which is what he did a lot as a rookie.
“The Wings obviously like what Mitch is all about – an agitator with skill who everyone wants to have on their team, but nobody wants to play against,” said Huska.
That’s the essence of Callahan, who was dubbed “Dirty Harry” long before he even knew who Clint Eastwood was. In the jargon of the cop film series, he was the “punk,” the kid who wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything.
If Callahan has a chip on his shoulder, it was always there.
“I’d like to think it started the day I was born,” he said. “It just comes out naturally.”
He may be right. He was actually thrown out of daycare. “Some kid stole my ball, and I punched him and got kicked out,” Callahan said.
Having a brother was always at the top of his Christmas wish list, but it never happened, so Callahan had to take out his aggressions elsewhere.
“I remember the first year of playing ice hockey when I was eight and me and this kid got into it,” said Callahan, who started playing roller hockey at age six.
Few dared call him out, but the reality was that most saw Callahan as the runt. “They always said I was too small or I wasn’t big enough,” he said. “My dad was my biggest fan. He told me not to give up, to keep working at it and everything would eventually pan out.”
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.
“A lot of people in my high school didn’t even know what hockey was,” said Callahan, who attended La Habra High School, just west of Whittier.
“None of my friends really played, but over the years I played with the same group of guys, from age 6 to 16, so I think I probably developed better friendships with my teammates in hockey than my friends from school,” he said.
Callahan is still friends with a lot of his former teammates, noting that his first real hockey fight was against Taylor Aronson, a Nashville Predators prospect currently playing for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. They’re now good buddies.
“We were both trying to make a Midget AAA team,” Callahan recalled. “It was a pretty terrible fight. I don’t think either one of us won.”
Callahan earned a reputation for yappin’ and scrappin’ in the WHL, where he ranked near the top of the heap for most fighting majors his first two seasons.
Coming into the AHL last season presented a new challenge, as he had to learn to fight men, not boys, including many who were bigger and stronger than he was.
“When I was in juniors, I was one of the stronger guys, but at the next level, I was one of the weaker guys and had to work to get stronger so that I wouldn’t get pushed around or beat up.”
He appeared in 48 games with the Griffins in 2011-12, tallying six goals and three assists with 103 penalty minutes.
“It was a good learning experience for me,” he said. “I didn’t play a whole lot, but as a 20-year-old playing my first year in the league, I had to pay my dues. You’ve got to earn your ice time.”
Callahan knows it’s highly unlikely that he will ever lead his team in scoring again, so it’s important that he do the things that will earn the respect of his coaches and teammates.
“It’s doing the little stuff, providing energy, making the big hit or blocking a big shot,” he said. “It’s all about showing the guys that I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
He would like to build a reputation as the type of player who would go through a wall for a teammate. If it means dropping the gloves and playing the role of enforcer, he’s more than happy to do it.
“When you hear the fans all screaming for you, it makes you feel appreciated out there,” he said.
Callahan worked out harder than ever this past summer, adding a little weight but not too much. “I didn’t want to lose any speed while I was trying to bulk up,” he said.
He hopes to take a regular shift during his sophomore season with the Griffins, a year after sitting out more than his share of games, first as a healthy scratch early in the season and, later, due to a pair of injuries, including a concussion.
“I don’t think anybody likes being a healthy scratch,” he said. “But we had a lot of young guys, and [former Griffins coach Curt Fraser] wanted to make it fair and get everybody in the mix.”
Dealing with the post-concussion symptoms was more frustrating, especially with the team failing to qualify for the playoffs. “It’s tough to watch your team play and not be in the lineup,” he said.
Callahan comes into the 2012-13 season fully recovered and feeling like he and his teammates are in a position to make big strides with another year of experience under their belts.
“If you compared us to other teams last year, we had one of the top teams on paper,” he said. “I think our season went pretty well, although we didn’t get the wins that we expected. Our work ethic was really good and we got along great. We just need to figure out how to win.”
Callahan has set no goals, at least statistically speaking, for this season, but he is ready to do what he can to help the team make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
“I would like to be more poised and patient with the puck,” he said. “I’d also like to stay healthy the whole season. I felt really good this summer, and I can’t wait to get started.”