By Kyle Kujawa -
At a glance, it’s not too hard to figure out what Grand Rapids Griffins winger Mitch Callahan brings to the table. Between the wavy, messy hairdo, the missing front tooth that can be noticed any time he grins, and the lighthearted and laid-back attitude, it’s clear he’s dropped the gloves for his teammates a time or two.
While that element will always be present when he’s on the ice, the Whittier, Calif., native has relished the opportunity to concentrate on his all-around game this season.
“Last year, I was 20 years old, fighting 15 times,” Callahan said. “I think I needed to give my body and head a rest a little bit. I pretty much fought anyone who asked me to fight.”
It was a tactic that endeared him to fans, but also one that cut his season short. A March 20 fight with San Antonio’s Eric Selleck – Callahan’s fourth scrap in six games – sidelined him for the rest of the season.
“This year, I’m not backing away from it, but I’m picking my spots better,” said Callahan, who had just four fights in his first 44 games of the 2012-13 season. “I’m looking out for the circumstances of the game and looking out for my health as well.”
Callahan’s toothless dilemma
Off the ice, sometimes the biggest challenge for Callahan is a little different than most would think. As followers of his Twitter account can attest, he has several times asked for assistance in finding fake teeth around town.
“I get pretty careless with them,” confessed Callahan, who wears a removable retainer when he’s away from the rink. “I throw them anywhere and I forget. I had them in my pocket and threw my jeans on the floor, and they fell out. After a few hours, I found them under a pile of clothes. Last year, I dropped them in the toilet. I had to rinse them off and leave them in mouthwash for a few days. That wasn’t too fun.”
The makeup of the Griffins’ roster has also helped take the pressure off Callahan to drop the gloves. The team added Triston Grant and Brennan Evans this summer – two players that are no strangers to dropping the gloves, but also valuable leaders who can play regular minutes.
“The hardest thing last year was when Greg Amadio got traded,” said Callahan of his former teammate, who ranks fifth in franchise history with 574 penalty minutes. “We didn’t have the designated tough guy. With these two guys, it takes the weight off my shoulders. I can be more comfortable, and I know I’m protected on the ice, so I don’t have to worry about that side of the game as much.”
As a result, Callahan is getting back to the role he was more comfortable with in junior hockey, when he played with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. He was certainly no stranger to the penalty box with 440 penalty minutes in 204 career junior games, but he also enjoyed back-to-back 20-goal seasons.
“I’m not known to be a goal scorer, but if I get the chances I can get a few,” he said. “I’m still playing as an agitator and getting under people’s skin a little, but I’m having more of an offensive touch. That’s just coming with being more comfortable in this league, and getting the chance to play a few more minutes.”
After just one goal in his first 30 games of the season, Callahan gained more offensive confidence in mid-January. He scored seven goals in a 13-game span and, after not recording a multipoint game in his first AHL season, tallied at least two points on four occasions in a 10-game stretch.
In a Jan. 19 game at Rockford that set a franchise record for combined penalty minutes (230), Callahan’s stat line included three goals and zero penalty minutes.
“I could have had some penalty minutes if you counted everyone in the brawl,” Callahan said of the bench-clearing brawl. “That was the first time it’s happened to me. In the big picture it was just our team standing up for each other, which is something we take pride in.
“After that night, it kind of sparked me and put it in my head that I can score more often,” he continued. “It puts thoughts in the back of your mind to not be afraid to make a play or shoot it, because good things can happen.”
Despite the hot streak, Callahan doesn’t have any confusion about what kind of player he is – “I’m not being used on the power play, which is totally understandable,” – it’s allowing him to play more minutes in more situations and get out of the healthy scratch rotation he fell into during parts of his debut season.
“[Head coach Jeff Blashill] tells me what I need to do to stay in the lineup,” said Callahan. “What he needs from me is to be an energy guy and to get under people’s skin. I need to be good on the penalty kill and good defensively at even strength. It could be my last game if I don’t do well. I could get taken out just as easily as I’m put in.”
Although he isn’t fighting as often, Callahan hasn’t scaled back the sandpaper. The ideal situation for any agitator is to do enough small pokes and prods to elicit one larger reaction from the opponent, taking them off their game – or, better yet, putting them in the box – to give the team a mental edge.
“It’s always funny to give them a nudge with your stick in the back of the knee,” Callahan said. “It doesn’t knock them down, but it puts them off balance. Doing anything to get in the way is fun. Just skate in front of them and start going really slow.
“That’s one thing Blashill always stresses on me, not to take any penalties. Earlier in the season I was taking to many minors, hitting guys from behind or not being cautious with my stick,” said Callahan, who has only put the team shorthanded six times among his 82 penalty minutes as of mid-February. “The only penalties I want to take are physical ones, or a fight here and there – anything that doesn’t hurt the team.”
Toeing the delicate line of legal and illegal is the challenge for any physical player, especially one that wants to be counted on in important situations and, eventually, down the road by the parent Detroit Red Wings.