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Ryan Callahan overcomes doubts to reach NHL dream

Before Ryan Callahan became a two-time U.S. Olympian and captain of the Rangers, he was a determined but doubted teenager from Rochester, N.Y., who needed a favor to get his foot in the door of the Ontario Hockey League.
Published Mar. 8, 2014

TAMPA

Ryan Callahan knows he can't replace Marty St. Louis. They're different players with different personalities. But Callahan, Tampa Bay's new right wing, does share something in common with St. Louis, the undrafted and undersized wing who turned into the greatest player in Lightning history: They're self-made stars.

Before Callahan, 28, became a two-time U.S. Olympian and captain of the Rangers, he was a determined but doubted teenager from Rochester, N.Y., who needed a favor to get his foot in the door of the junior Ontario Hockey League.

Before the 2001 OHL draft, Callahan's agent, Steve Bartlett, reached out to his friend, Guelph coach Jeff Jackson, asking him to take a chance on the kid, telling him he would never regret it. Jackson had never seen Callahan play but, thanks to Bartlett's suggestion, took him in the 15th round. Only seven players were drafted after him.

"He didn't take him until the last round, so maybe he didn't believe me," Bartlett says, laughing. "Maybe he threw me a bone."

Callahan made Jackson a quick believer, scoring 36 goals in his second season. Two years after that, he had 52 en route to becoming a fourth-round pick of the Rangers.

"As much as it was a favor to Steve, it ended up being a favor to me and the Guelph Storm," says Jackson, now the coach at Notre Dame. "He deserves all the credit for the player he's become. When you have good instincts, that is half the battle in today's game. What makes up for him not being a big guy is his competi­tiveness. He may not be 6-2, but he plays 6-2."

Callahan, a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder, has always been told he was too small to play the style he wanted: a hard-checking, shot-blocking, two-way forward who sticks up for teammates and gets under opponent's skin. And he has been driven by his difficult road to get here: from going undrafted in his first eligible NHL draft year to not even getting selected to play in the Ran­gers' Blue-White game at the end of his first camp.

"There weren't too many colleges looking at me to give me a scholarship. I was drafted in the last round in the OHL," Callahan said. "I've always tried to use those things as motivation."

Callahan learned at a young age that with his size, he had to play with an "edge" to get respect.

That held especially true in games in the neighborhood cul de sac with his bigger, older brother, Mike, 34.

"That's where it all began," Callahan said, smiling. "He used to beat the (heck) out of me."

Callahan said neighbors even called the police a couple of times, not happy with how physical the games got.

"He was always the mighty mite where he wouldn't back down from anybody," said Bartlett, whose son, Scott, played with Callahan as a youth. "He was in all the tough areas and was absolutely fearless where he'd go out. And if the kid was twice his size, he'd get right in there and knock him over or out of the corner."

Callahan, who grew up with a Brendan Shanahan poster on his wall, said it was special to play on the same line with the Hall of Famer as a rookie in 2006.

"It was an eye-opener, like, 'I made it here,' " Callahan said. "It made you want to stay."

Through his seven seasons with the Rangers, Callahan endeared himself to teammates, coaches and fans for personifying their "Black-and-Blueshirts" identity, getting named captain in 2011. After Callahan was traded to Tampa Bay for St. Louis on Wednesday, Bartlett said an angry Rangers fan called him, upset he couldn't work out an extension for Callahan to stay.

"He's one of those guys if you wrote a book on how to play hockey, he plays the game the right way," Lightning center Nate Thompson said. "He does everything hard. There's a reason he was captain in New York. He does all the little things. He's definitely a heart-and-soul guy."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he needed a gritty player such as Callahan, who sacrifices his body, sometimes sliding face-first to block shots on the penalty kill. That devotion has led to various broken bones, including a broken thumb this season. But Callahan says injuries won't stop him from doing it.

Offensively, Callahan can also pack some punch with three 20-goal seasons. He often throws his body in front of the net, something captain Steven Stamkos says the Lightning needs in tonight's matchup with first-place Boston,

"A true character test," he calls it.

Jackson says Callahan's character will make him a "fan favorite" in Tampa, especially if the unrestricted free agent ends up signing a long-term deal.

Said Jackson: "He's proven everybody wrong."

Prospect hurt: Defenseman Slater Koekkoek, the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft, is done for the OHL season with a right shoulder injury, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. Koekkoek, whose left shoulder has been surgically repaired the past two seasons, will be re-evaluated Monday. Koekkoek had 15 goals and 38 assists in 61 games for Windsor.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

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