Callahan works towards NHL

While his three seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins have yet to produce a call from the Detroit Red Wings, former Los Angeles Jr. King Mitch Callahan holds on to a light that refuses to be extinguished. He’s climbing the ladder to the big leagues one rung at a time and has surprised many people, including himself, with his ability to persevere.

Recently, the nitty-gritty forward has had an opportunity to play a bigger role on the team as a result of an injury-laden Detroit squad recalling many of his teammates, including two of his roommates - Luke Glendening and Riley Sheahan.

Reaching this point hasn’t been a cake walk for Callahan, but he’s used to having to work for what he wants.

“I think it all started off playing junior hockey,” Callahan said. “I got a tryout to Kelowna of the WHL and made it as a walk-on. They had no idea who I was. That kind of showed that, for me, it’s going to be a bunch of hard work if I’m going to make it anywhere.

“Going into the draft, I was a late pick. Going into my first year pro, the Griffins didn’t know if they wanted to keep me in Grand Rapids, send me to the Toledo Walleye (ECHL) or send me back to juniors. So I just kind of went to the grindstone and made sure that they couldn’t send me anywhere.”

Callahan has been a Griffins mainstay since his arrival in the 2011-12 season.

Standing six feet tall and weighing a humble 200 pounds, Callahan has never been afraid to step up and scrap with the best of them. In his debut season with Grand Rapids, he clocked 103 penalty minutes in only 48 games, including 14 fighting majors that were enough to rank second among all AHL rookies. During Callahan’s 2012-13 Calder Cup-winning season, he slightly reined in his temper and finished the regular season with 10 fewer penalty minutes in 23 more games.

He’s an agitator, though he laughs at the idea of ever being considered a serious heavy-hitter.

“I’m not sure if I was ever an enforcer. I was probably a guy who fought guys around my height when I had the opportunity,” Callahan joked. “But I’m not going to be fighting the real big guys.”

In his latest campaign, Callahan has largely kept his fists in his gloves and has seen his penalty minutes severely drop as a result, only having served 37 minutes’ worth of infractions in 46 games.

”I don’t mind fighting, but right now it’s tough with all of the guys we have gone. I know [coach Jeff Blashill] wants me to play more of a defensive role. My fights have also been limited due to Blash giving me a bigger role, too.”

Callahan’s performance in the playoffs last season, in particular, brought to light what he’s capable of when given a chance. He recorded points in back-to-back games on five separate occasions, including Games 5 and 6 of the Calder Cup Finals against Syracuse, and tied for the team lead in the finals with five points (2-3—5), including a goal and an assist during the cup-clinching game.

Buffered by Detroit’s issues, Callahan’s track record has bought him a very well-deserved amount of ice time this season.

“I think Mitch has been real good all year and his role increases when the guys are gone. What I would also say, though, is that it took me too long last year to figure out how good he was, and I think I realize that now. I really trust him out there,” Blashill remarked in an interview following a 3-0 shutout against the Abbotsford Heat on Jan. 17. Callahan notched his 16th goal of the season in the game.

Within his new responsibilities, grinding the net and pushing in pucks have become commonplace. This tactic was especially helpful for the Whittier, Calif., native when he tallied his second professional hat trick on Nov. 20 in a 5-0 home blanking of the Milwaukee Admirals.

“I think the goal-scoring has come down to just working hard and being in front of the net. If you take a look at all of the goals, none of them are really pretty,” Callahan said. “I had a couple 20-goal seasons in juniors. I’ve never been a goal scorer, but if I get the chance I can do pretty well at it.”

And where he’s been given an inch, he’s taken a mile, earning 18 goals to tie for first on the team, along with eight assists and a team-best plus-16 rating. Currently, Blashill and Callahan are trying to give the persistent forward his best opportunity to make it to the next level.

“Coach thinks that my best chance of playing in the NHL is to be a disciplined player and to stay out of the box and not hurt the team in that way, so I’ve been really focusing on not taking any minor penalties,” Callahan said.

But he knows that nothing will simply be handed to him along the way.

“Every kid’s goal is to make it to the NHL. I know I’m a late bloomer, so it’s taken me a few years in the American Hockey League. Right now, I’m pretty happy with where I’m at. I love this organization and I love the team. It’s just a great atmosphere to play here.

“For me it’s kind of taking it step by step and not really rushing it. If you start rushing it, you’re just going to hurt yourself in a few ways. I’m just going to continue to drive to my goal of playing in the NHL and work on one thing at a time.”

Story Courtesy Alan Cross/