Before he played in the NHL, Mike Cammalleri remembers nights competing as a Toronto Red Wing at Chesswood Arena as the closest thing to it.
“I remember that being our own little NHL,” said the 28-year-old Richmond Hill native. “I remember it being as competitive as could be. Going into Chesswood for home games on Friday nights, and the gossip and the buzz in the rink, the energy, it felt like we were playing in our own Toronto NHL.”
Now one of the most well-known faces on the Montreal Canadiens, Cammalleri played on the Red Wings back when the Greater Toronto Hockey League was known as the Metro Toronto Hockey League.
He’s come a long way since those days. Cammalleri displayed an impressive performance in the past season’s playoffs, having led the Habs to the Eastern Conference final with 13 goals, where they lost to Stanley Cup finalists, the Philadelphia Flyers.
This made him the first Hab since Vincent Damphouse to score 11 or more goals (in the playoffs). Damphouse achieved it in 1993, which was also the last year the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. But before becoming a star as a result of his 2010 playoff performance, the 5-foot-9, 182-pound forward recalls the GTHL as one of the places his National Hockey League dreams first took flight.
“It was quite an experience,” Cammalleri said. “I honestly remember thinking about those games like I was in the National Hockey League.
But make no mistake – while Cammalleri remembers his early years in the GTHL as some of the most competitive he’s played, he knows there is no comparing the sheer level of performance that is expected of him in the NHL.
“It’s the best of the best,” he said. “You have to be so focused, and so energized and so ready every game, every shift, or you’re not going to be successful.”
Cammalleri has played in a range of leagues, including the GTHL, NCAA, and AHL, but said the NHL is on a whole different level.
“It just takes a great level of commitment to be a really good professional at that level,” he said. “It’s a big challenge.”
And Cammalleri has met that challenge head on, blossoming into one of the Canadiens’ most watched scorers. The accolades are still rolling in following his performance in the playoffs, in which the Habs made the final four.
While Cammalleri has already played in a number of high profile games in his young but flourishing career, including stints with Team Canada, he counts last season’s playoffs as one of the most exciting he’s played in.
“My first thought is it was a lot of fun, it was exciting for us as a team, for Montreal and for the people,” he said. Cammalleri said it was a close call and he feels he learned a lot over the season, but was ultimately disappointed in the result.
“It was an exhilarating ride,” he said, “but at the same time, I don’t want to say it was all for naught because you live and you learn, and you learn a lot about each other and your team, and you take a lot from that experience… but the idea is to win the whole thing.”
While the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals are still the teams to beat in the East, the Habs’ biggest challenge may be repeating their performance from last year.
“We got down to four teams, and hopefully we can get there again and give it another shot,” he said.
When asked what he feels he learned most from the season, Cammalleri showed that he is the consummate team player. For him, the major thing he took out of the playoffs was the connection he built with his team.
“It’s tough to say just one thing, for us it was more so as a group,” he said. “We were a team that was just put together, a lot of new faces with 10 or so new players. It took time for us to find our identity and find out about one another.”
When hearing the passion and enthusiasm Cammalleri displays while talking about his team, it’s easy for anyone to see the importance he places on the team dynamic.
“I think that’s the biggest thing you learn, all the intricacies of what makes your team successful and what you need to do to play well,” he said.
And while being a strong team player may be at least partly due to Cammalleri’s personality, he doesn’t discount the role Toronto had in shaping the player he is today.
In fact, he has his own theory that he has formulated over the years by observing professional NHL players who come from Toronto.
“I think there’s something about playing in the Toronto market as a young guy, you have to learn how to rely on your teammates a lot because it’s such a competitive league,” he said.
He said he even notices that his fellow NHLers that hail from Toronto also generally tend to have a strong team ethic.
“Different things sculpt you as a person, as an athlete, your surroundings, your upbringing, where you came from,” he said. “With a lot of the kids that grew up playing in Toronto that end up at the pro level, I find that they’re good at using their teammates and playing a give-and-go game.
“They kind of play a team game because it’s hard to be successful in such a competitive growing up as an individual,” he said, “I think sometimes guys who grew up in a smaller market are able to get away with more on an individual level.”
Cammalleri remembers his time in the GTHL fondly – some of his most vivid memories were playing against the Mississauga reps, the Toronto Marlboros and the Vaughan Rangers.
He said the year that sticks out in his mind the most was his pee-wee year.
“Our pee-wee year was just so memorable in a lot of ways,” he said. “We lost like four games our pee-wee year, they were all in the regular season. We played in all six major tournaments and didn’t lose one game in the tournaments.”
While a Red Wing, he remembers his parents and family as some his biggest influences who gave him the motivation and inspiration to focus on his career. But apart from his family, he said that his Red Wings coach Craig Clarke played a major role in his development, both on and off the ice.
“Mr. Clarke was a great person, he taught us how to be good people, to be good human beings first,” Cammalleri said. “He instilled strong moral values in us as hockey players, as people, in the way we treated each other and our work ethic.”
He talked about how his coach often pushed the players hard, and expected a lot out of them. This only prepared him more for the high expectations that would await him in his professional career.
“It wasn’t pretty at times, he taught us how to work hard, and if that anything was worth getting in life you had to work for it,” he said. “I really appreciated his leadership.”
One of the most memorable moments of Cammalleri’s professional career was playing for Team Canada, in the footsteps of some of his hockey heroes such as Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya.
“Playing on Team Canada was something I’ve always cherished…it’s been a big honour for me,” he said. “I grew up watching the world junior championships. The impression it leaves on you as a younger is probably where that comes from.”
Cammalleri’s first three career NHL games will also stay in his memory for years to come, as will the cities he played them in – Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto.
“When I first came in and played those first three games, you’re so green that you don’t even know what’s taking place,” he said. “It’s almost surreal.”
Playing in Montreal has also been surreal at times for Cammalleri, considering the legendary team has won more Stanley Cups than any other NHL club. Fortunately, he has no problem sharing with his teammates the pressure of living up to the Canadiens’ past.
“There’s a lot of pressure playing in Montreal, and it’s too much for one person’s shoulders, so we do it as a team and we share it, and that’s the only way it’s feasible,” he said.
Cammalleri said he appreciates the history of the Canadiens and has high hopes to add to the Habs’ legacy.
“For me I really think it’s important to appreciate the history that is the Montreal Canadiens. I think the best way to appreciate and respect it is to try and make our own little fingerprint on that history by trying to perform well and make something happen,” he said.
“I think that’s the most honourable way to respect the history that is the Canadiens.”
And while he is clearly pleased to play on the Canadiens, one can’t help but wonder what it’s like playing for his hometown team’s archrivals, especially considering the major role Toronto played in his formative development as a hockey player.
When asked if he would consider playing for the Leafs in the future if the price was right, Cammalleri made it clear where his allegiance lies.
“I’m happy in Montreal and that it worked out that way,” Cammalleri said. “Right now I want to be Montreal Canadien, so that’s not even something that has entered my mind.”