by Kevin Parnell
March 24, 2014, Kelowna (ISN) – Former Kelowna Rocket Mitch Callahan was recalled by the Detroit Red Wings on Monday and will likely make his NHL debut this week. It’s part of Callahan’s journey that began in 2008-09 when he made the Rockets as a walk-on player.
Below is a feature story on Callahan’s Kelowna years:
When Mitch Callahan arrived in Kelowna prior to the 2008-09 Western Hockey League season, he was an offensively talented, if undersized, forward getting set for his final season of midget hockey in California.
On the small side and playing in CA, the Whittier native wasn’t drafted in the WHL bantam draft But Callahan’s midget coach in LA had worked out a tryout agreement with the Rockets on Callahan’s behalf.
The Rockets already featured high scoring Californian and captain Colin Long and had drafted CA native Shane McColgan that summer.
But no one knew what to expect from the 17-year-old Callahan, when the laid-back left-wing arrived in Kelowna. Save for his midget coach Jack Bowkus who, not surprisingly, had an inkling that he wouldn’t be getting Callahan back.
Still Callahan was was an unknown trying to make a team that would make a run to the Memorial Cup that season.
Now, six years later, Callahan has worked his way to the NHL, after being recalled by the Detroit Red Wings Monday.
It won’t surprise anyone who watched his progression from walk-on, to NHL draft pick to scoring winger in Kelowna. His work ethic and determination is legendary. And if he’s not the toughest player pound for pound to wear the Rockets jersey, he’s certainly in the conversation.
At training camp Callahan wasn’t shy.
“He wasn’t hard to figure out,” said Rockets assistant general manager Lorne Frey. “He made quite an impression in training camp. After four days of camp he was really impressive. He worked really hard and he had good skill too. He just kept getting better.”
The Rockets weren’t sure what Callahan wanted to do, but they knew they wanted to keep him with the team.
“We didn’t know if he was planning to stay or go back and play midget,” said Frey. “We met with him and he said some of the players thought he could make the team. We asked if he wanted to stay or go home and he said he wanted to play.”
And so it began. Callahan played that first year on an energy line with Rockets’ forwards Evan Bloodoff and Curt Gogol, playing a hard-working style of hockey that made him a fan favourite.
“That was a real important line for us,” said Rockets’ head coach Ryan Huska, who would guide the club to the WHL title and to the Memorial Cup. They played the disturber role for us perfectly.”
Callahan had 188 penalty minutes that year, the most of any of his three years as a Rocket. And 14 goals and 13 assists from the California walk-on hinted at bigger things to come on the offensive side.
In less than a year Callahan went from a virtual unknown, undrafted or listed player who was headed back to midget to an NHL draft pick. At the 2009 NHL Entry Draft the Detroit Red Wings drafted Callahan in the sixth round (180th overall).
Callahan scored 20 and 23 goals the next two seasons for the Rockets as his offensive numbers increased and his PIMs went down, from 165 in his second season to 85 in his third year as a 19-year-old. He became a feared leader who would do anything for his teammates including dropping the mitts with anyone willing.
“Mitchell was a fearless player at a young age,” recalled Huska. “When he left Kelowna he had developed into a key player that was counted on for his offensive production.”
As a 20-year-old Callahan made the jump to Detroit’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids and was gone for good. Three great junior years behind him. Callahan started his pro career never to look back. But what would he have been like as a 20-year-old? It nearly happened.
“When he started out in Grand Rapids I don’t think he played a lot,” said Frey. “We tried to get him back. And even at the deadline Detroit was contemplating it. He would have been valuable to us. We thought if we had gotten him back we might have won again.”
But as Callahan had done since showing up in Kelowna, he kept progressing and moving forward. He stuck with Grand Rapids. He had 103 PIMs (the most of his three years in the AHL) and only six goals as a rookie. But he scored 11 last year and this year he is simply on fire.
Now 22, Callahan ranks among the Griffins’ leaders with 25 goals (2nd), 40 points (3rd), a plus-21 rating (1st) 51 penalty minutes (5th), six power-play goals (T2nd), two shorthanded goals (1st) and 185 shots on goal (1st).
In 185 games with Grand Rapids since 2011-12, he’s recording 69 points (42-27-69) and 247 penalty minutes.
Callahan should make his NHL debut this week. The Red Wings will play four games in six days this week beginning tomorrow night in Columbus.
“It’s a funny thing,” said Frey. “He paid his dues and he didn’t get down. It just goes to show you. A guy competes, works hard, perseveres. Now he’s getting his chance and you know what? He’ll make the best of it. He’s a lot more skilled than a lot of people think. He’s a pretty complete player.”