TAMPA — If you saw Ryan Callahan at Monday’s Stanley Cup final opener between the Lightning and Canadiens, you might have wondered what the former Tampa Bay forward has been up to.
Callahan, 36, who officially retired in December 2020 after being diagnosed with a degenerative back disease after the 2018-19 season, moved to his native Rochester, N.Y., last summer but still has a strong love for the Tampa Bay community, where he started a foundation in 2016.
The Tampa Bay Times caught up with Callahan after his trip to Tampa, the first live sporting event he and his wife, Kayla, have attended since before the pandemic. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What was it like to be back at Amalie Arena for the Stanley Cup final?
“It was awesome for a lot of different reasons, but just to be back in that building, it’s been a while, since obviously before COVID, that I saw a game there and then the first one to be back with the Stanley Cup finals, the energy in the building, the energy outside in the city, you could feel it as soon as you got there.
“There was a lot of emotion I think I had, just excitement, just excited to be at a live sporting event, to be honest with you, first off, but it was good. I mean, you could tell it was the Stanley Cup finals and you could feel the energy in the building. It was a lot of fun to be able to be a part of that and see that building rocking again. For it being my first live sporting event since the onset of COVID-19, it definitely raised the bar pretty high, for sure, going to a Stanley Cup final Game 1.”
How much does it mean to have the Lightning Foundation’s support for your foundation and to get that $100,000 donation through the Community Heroes program to help pediatric cancer patients and their families?
“My wife and I were just extremely humbled and honored when we heard (Jeff and Penny Vinik) wanted to honor us as Community Heroes, and what they do for that Tampa Bay area and that community is just amazing. It inspired us to want to do more, too, when we first started our foundation there, and they’re a big part of us starting.
“I remember me and my wife met with them right when we started our foundation and just picked their brain a little bit about how to do things, and they were so supportive throughout the five years I was there. And now, kind of to cap it off with this with honor, it’s truly humbling, and we were kind of lost for words when we found out that we were getting such a large donation for charity and we’re going to be able to help so many families with that.”
“Cally’s Comforts has been awesome. It’s gone off great. We’ve had some great volunteers to help do nails and hair and massage. We’ve helped, I think, three families now in Tampa, we’ve helped two families here in Rochester, N.Y., so it’s gone off great. It’s been a huge success. The families have really enjoyed it.”
What makes the Canadiens such a dangerous opponent for the Lightning?
I think they play very similar to the Islanders just in their structure and they’re disciplined to their system. And then you add in, obviously, some young players that have stepped in this year that are having a ton of success with their speed.
“I think last game was a perfect example of just how tenacious they can be on the forecheck and having that third guy above you have to work through, which gets exhausting throughout a game. Nothing comes easy against them and then as you get through them, all of a sudden, then you run into Carey Price, which is pretty good in himself.
“I didn’t think they were gonna get past Toronto. I was right there with everybody else, and they’ve been proving everybody wrong. But I think they’ve hit their stride at the right time, and everybody on that lineup has completely bought into their system and the way they play it and have a belief in it. That’s giving them success right now.”
I assume you’ve heard NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s concerns about NHL players participating in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. As a two-time Olympian, how much does that experience mean to players and coaches in the league?
“Just from my own experience, I feel terrible for these players, to be honest with you. You want to make the NHL and you want to play for your country. There was no greater pride for me than putting on those Team USA jerseys those two Olympics I played in (2010, 2014). It meant everything to put on a Rangers jersey (he played for New York from 2006 until being traded to the Lighting in 2014) and a Lightning jersey, but when you represent your country, it’s something completely different.
“You’re representing more than just the game of hockey. You know you have a country behind you, and I cherish those Olympics I was in, and to think that you know you got guys like Edmonton’s Connor McDavid or Toronto’s Auston Matthews, these premier players that may never have that opportunity or that chance, I feel bad for them, I really do.
“So I’m really, really hoping that they figure something out and they can get there, because it’d be a shame if those players didn’t get that same opportunity that I had. I just can’t say enough about my experience representing my country, and I really hope that these star players and these talents can have that opportunity as well, because I know they’ll cherish it.”
How exciting is it for you to transition from working with the NHL Network to ESPN and Turner Sports take up NHL coverage next season?
“I’m absolutely thrilled not only to be a part of it, but when I heard ESPN was getting hockey back, it’s the worldwide leader in sports. and I think it’ll help grow the game of hockey so much, just to the casual fan or someone who’s really not familiar with the game.
“If you’re a sports fan, you’re watching Sports Center. You might be tuning in because you’re a basketball fan or because you’re a baseball fan or a football fan, and all of a sudden you see guys talking hockey and you’re watching a little bit of hockey and highlights and it’s gonna pique some curiosity and some interest in the game, so I think it’s going to grow the game a ton.
“I enjoyed my time in the studio these last couple of years on the NHL Network, but I definitely would love to get the chance to be in the booth and be in the games, feel the energy and share my knowledge about in-game stuff and what’s going on, so I’m definitely open to that kind of role and I’m hoping I get that opportunity as well.”
Who: Lightning at Canadiens, Game 3
When: Friday at 8 p.m.
Where: Montreal, Quebec, at the Bell Centre
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