|He's a flame! Michael Cammalleri will start the new NHL season back in Canada after the Calgary Flames acquired the talented forward from the Los Angeles Kings.
Michael Cammalleri is coming home. The National Hockey League star, who had an 80-point tally with the Los Angeles Kings two years ago and put his name in the record books as the first NHL player to score a goal on European soil in the season opener last year, returns to Canada after being acquired by the Calgary Flames in one of the big moves during the off-season.
Cammalleri is clearly excited by the prospect of playing for Calgary, and why not? The Flames are a bona fide Stanley Cup contender; plus, as the Richmond Hill native puts it, “It’s always been appealing to me to come home and play in Canada - it’s something I kind of always wanted to do.”
One thing is for sure – the move north of the border will significantly increase his profile, especially with the fans. For a player of his calibre, Cammalleri enjoyed a surprising amount of anonymity during his time in Los Angeles.
“For the most part, people in LA didn’t recognize me,” laughs Cammalleri.
“I met people who asked me what I do, so I told them ‘I play for the Kings’, to which they replied ‘Wow, you seem so small for a basketball player’. So I told them I meant the LA Kings, not Sacramento (the NBA basketball team), and they’d ask ‘Hey, is Wayne Gretzky still on the team?’ Yeah, hockey was not that huge out there.”
So how was it that a kid from Richmond Hill wound up in the elite ranks of the NHL? Cammalleri’s journey, the way he tells it, began at a very early age.
The son of a Jewish mother and Italian father (“I’m a pizza bagel!”
he exclaims), 26-year-old Cammalleri''s passion for hockey was fuelled at a very young age.
“From the time I could walk, I remember wanting to get on the ice,” he says. “I started playing competitively when I was about five or six.”
As a youngster, Cammalleri played for the Toronto Red Wings, where
he remembers developing skills and really developing a love for the game. Playing with a team with a name like that also made him dream about playing for either the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Detroit Red Wings.
“I thought it would be so great to play for either of those teams. They are obviously both close to home and they have such rich histories.”
As he got older and the depth of his talent became more and more apparent, his parents made more obvious sacrifices and encouraged him even further.
“My parents were always so supportive,” he recalls, “Taking me
to games and tournaments, always making time… They sacrificed a lot
for me. My sister too – she was at almost all of my games. Hockey has kind of been like the glue in my family that bonded us all together.”
He fast-tracked his way through high school, graduating from Country Day School in King City in only three years. At this time, he was playing junior for the Bramalea Blues and putting up stellar numbers. That’s when he made one of the first difficult decisions in his life.
“It was obvious that hockey was in my future, and many guys were taking the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) route. But my parents and I, along with my coach at the time Lindsay Hofford, talked about it and decided going to University would be a far better choice.”
At the age of 15, he verbally committed to the University of Michigan, where he would receive a full scholarship. As he finished high school, he continued playing for the Bulls and represented Canada in tournaments, where he developed a reputation for his scoring smarts.
Winning championships and gold medals and leading in scoring against some of the NHL’s top prospects, guys like Scott Hartnell and Brad Boyes,
it was becoming obvious that this kid was something special.
“I realized that I was competing with some of these highly touted young prospects and started thinking ‘If I can play like this against these future NHLers, I may have a real shot,” Cammalleri recalls.
Part of his education took place on the ice, thanks to coaches like Hofford and Craig Clark. “We were playing in a tournament once, and the national anthem was being played. Well, in the NHL, they shift from one foot to the other, so we all did the same thing. When we got to the dressing room, coach Clark ripped us a new one. ‘Who do you think you guys are? When you hear the national anthem being played, you stand still and you respect it!’ We all remember that one – it was lessons like those that taught me to properly respect the game and other aspects in life that we may constantly overlook.”
At the University of Michigan, Cammalleri played parts of three seasons while studying sports management and communications.
“Going to University was a great decision. I feel like I learned a lot about life, about myself there. I grew and matured as a person and feel like I didn’t miss out on an aspect of my life that other players did.”
He knew the importance of receiving a higher education and having something to fall back on in case professional hockey just wasn’t in his cards. In 2001, at the end of his second year, the Los Angeles Kings drafted him in the second round, 49th overall, among players of the highest calibre including Jason Spezza, Ilya Kovalchuk, Derek Roy and many other bona-fide stars in the NHL today. The following year, his third at university, the Kings offered him a contract, and he left school to play in his first professional game with the American Hockey League’s Manchester Monarchs.
The AHL is one level down from the NHL, a common place for young players to develop their professional games. Many prospects are unable to proceed past that level. However, after putting up 20 points in 13 games, Cammalleri was called up to play for the LA Kings against the Ottawa Senators. In his debut game, he picked up his first NHL point – an assist.
The following season, he split his time between the Kings and Monarchs. His statistics were noteworthy in both leagues, but the NHL went on strike the following season. For many, this may have been discouraging. For Cammalleri, it was his opportunity to take his game to the next level. With almost 60 games of NHL experience and a hunger to establish himself as a force, he finished second in the AHL in scoring during the NHL strike, thus endearing himself to the Kings management and solidifying his NHL spot the next season.
In that first season back, 2005/06, he scored an impressive 26 goals in 80 games. At this point, Cammalleri didn’t have to worry about whether or not he was going to make it. He just had to wonder how high his star could rise.
The following season, he scored 34 goals (with 80 points) in 81 games. Last season he had a couple of injuries that held him to only 19 goals. He did, however, enjoy the distinction of being the first NHL player to ever score a goal on European soil, when England hosted the NHL’s first ever European game between the Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
Cammalleri is confident that he’ll rebound this coming season and progress to another level.
“I’ve spent a lot of time training and building a lot of strength in the hips and groin. I do a lot of acupuncture and sports medicine treatments to keep my body in top shape. I train hard and do everything possibly to improve my overall performance and stamina.”
Keeping the level of success he has enjoyed in mind, it’s hard to believe that Cammalleri is only 5 foot 9 – a full four inches shorter than the average NHLer. Cammalleri himself doesn’t believe size is an issue. “You play as big as you can, work to be as strong as you can and your size won’t make a difference,” he says.
He’s not in it to prove the naysayers wrong, but he does get a kick out of it when he does. “At every level, I’ve heard ‘He’s dominating here, but wait till the next level’, and I go to the next level and, well, I’m in the NHL now, so where else is there to go?”
Cammalleri enjoys speaking to youngsters, and even returned to his former high school this past spring. “The most important thing I can do myself, and tell kids to do – always improve. When you’re young, your goal shouldn’t be about ‘making the NHL’. It should be to always improve. Love the game, have fun and work hard and get better every year.”
While he doesn’t consider himself in the same league as the Great One, Cammalleri remembers a video he saw featuring Wayne Gretzky when he was younger that he completely agrees with.
“Gretzky was talking about how when he was a kid, he’d practice all the time, and people would ask ‘How can you practice so much?’ to which he’d reply ‘If I felt like I was practicing, I wouldn’t be doing it.’ This guy just loved the game so much and enjoyed all the hard work he put into it.”
While Cammalleri is certainly inspired by Gretzky, he cites Joe Sakic and Pavel Bure as being his influences as a youngster. “Pavel Bure was just one of the most explosive players ever – his speed and hands were second to none. He was so fun to watch. Joe Sakic though, he’s one of the league’s classiest acts. To be able to actually play against him has been one of the highlights of my career.”
While Cammalleri has enjoyed his personal success thus far, what he''s hoping for is to be a part of something even more important. “The Kings hadn’t made the playoffs since 2002, so I haven’t had the chance to play in a NHL playoff game. In Calgary, my goal is simple – I want to play for the cup. That’s what we’re all in it for.”
Off the ice, Cammalleri is a very well-rounded individual. While he likes to golf (and is in fact a scratch golfer), he also works hard to prepare for life after hockey.
“You never know how long you’re really going to get to play for, so you need to be ready. School helped me prepare, and now I’m using a lot of my contacts and connections to develop other potential business opportunities when I hang up the skates.”
While he’d love to play for many more years, he knows the reality is that he needs to be ready for anything. “Things change very quickly in this game.”
His family is still an extremely big part of his life. Every Christmas and off-season, he comes home to spend time with them.
“They’re my support system. They came to LA whenever they could to see me play. They even made the trip to England (for the NHL season opener). It was such a thrill having them there.”
His parents’ encouragement has played a huge role in his career,
and has given him a strong opinion about the developing problem of the negative role parents play at their children’s games.
“My parents were always positive no matter what. I think all parents should be energetic and passionate – kids feed off that – but they need to stay positive and remember that yelling at refs or coaches isn’t the right thing to do. They need to realize that their child isn’t going to miss out on opportunities based on one bad game or one bad call. If their child has the passion and the work ethic, they’ll get the attention they deserve.”
And with a little luck, end up playing the world’s coolest game for a living.