Here’s a column I wrote for The Journal News and LoHud.com yesterday:
The last time the Rangers played a hockey game with somebody other than Ryan Callahan as their captain, Callahan was on crutches.
He was on crutches because, in the biggest game of 2010-11, Game 80 of 82, with the Rangers barely clinging to a playoff spot, they came back from 3-0 down to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, scoring three times in the final 3:48 to take a one-goal lead, when Boston captain Zdeno Chara wound up for a shot.
He blocked the shot, broke his ankle, played the rest of the shift, and limped around for the signature, post-victory stick salute on one of the loudest nights of the season.
“I knew it wasn’t going to feel good if it hit me,” Callahan said before playing the Bruins on Saturday in Boston. “(Chara) was walking into a slap shot, and you see who it is. But, at the time, we have a one-goal lead, and we’re fighting for a playoff spot — you’re going to do that 10 out of 10 times. As soon as it hit me, it stung, and I knew it was going to leave a mark, and I was hoping it wasn’t as bad as it was. Unfortunately, it was. And if it happened again, I’m sure anybody in this room would do it.”
Anybody in the room would do it, partially at least, because it’s Callahan’s room now. Callahan was named the team’s captain just prior to this season, at age 26, succeeding Chris Drury, because he embodies the way these Rangers play, because he is what they are about — blocking shots, hitting, scoring, killing penalties, playing defense, whatever it takes. He’s an exceptional skater, a devastating hitter, sort of a smaller version of Adam Graves.
“It’s how he plays, how he handles himself,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said this week. “It’s a huge part of what we want to be. And when you have your leadership group not just talking about it but putting it on the ice and doing it, I think your identity comes more quickly. Everybody joins in.
“Where you have a home-grown captain like Cally, that’s even better. That forces the issue as far as what we are. He plays the right way. And that’s the way we want to play. I think that helps us grow quicker with our identity.”
Last season, when Callahan missed 19 games with a broken hand, and then the final two games of the season plus the first-round playoff loss to Washington with the broken ankle, Tortorella lamented his absence. The coach rarely comments on an injury’s effect on the team, saying, “We’ll be fine,” and insisting there will be no excuses. But even Tortorella admitted that there were so many situations within games when he’d look down the bench and wished he had Callahan.
So it was a natural progression that the alternate captain’s “A” on Callahan’s sweater would become the “C” this season.
“I think it was a great choice,” said goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the team’s biggest star. “It reflects how we want to play. And he’s still young. So, down the road here, he’s going to grow into this role. It’s a big role. Being captain of the New York Rangers, it’s a big deal. But I think he’s going to get more and more comfortable with it. Obviously, with it comes some responsibilities, but so far he’s been handling everything really well.”
Callahan was honored. But if he had a concern, it was that he didn’t want to force himself to be anything other than what he’d been. He’d always been a guy who would say something that needed to be said, and the captaincy wouldn’t change that.
“You’ve got to step up and maybe say something where normally you wouldn’t, or you kind of have to gauge how the team’s feeling, how the guys are feeling,” Callahan said. “You’re more of the middle man between Torts and the room and how things are going. That’s probably the biggest difference off the ice.”
It’s tough enough for a young player to be a captain, but Callahan has had to do it in a circus-like first half of the season, which began with seven road games, including the first two in Sweden.
“It’s been a tough start, whether you’re a captain or not,” he said. “It’s been a whirl-wind of a season, staring with Europe, the Winter Classic, (HBO’s) ‘24/7’ (in which Callahan’s grandmother was a star), but we’ve made it through it. We’ve had some success. You hope that it gets easier from here. But, you know, the hockey’s not going to get easier.”
It won’t, and Tortorella and Callahan have made sure that message is loud and clear.
The HBO series, and the MSG biographical series “Beginnings” have taught us about Callahan’s blue-collar upbringing in Rochester.
He does the little, dirty jobs so well, yet Tortorella sees the skill within his captain.
“I think there’s more,” Tortorella said. “I think sometimes Cally gets put in a corner where he’s just a grinder. He’s a talented player, too. He’s a complete player. He has the skill to make plays, the skill to score goals, but he has that intangible off the ice in how he carries himself, and just plays hard every night. .”
Callahan accepts the responsibility and rigidly said the captaincy “is not something I take lightly.”
These Rangers had half a season for the ages, one they know will only matter if they can have a terrific second half, too, then take the next step in the playoffs.
But, as hoped, they have taken on the personality of their captain.
Captain Callahan at a glance
Born: March 21, 1985, in Rochester
Position: Right wing
Drafted: Rangers’ 4th-round pick — 127th overall — in 2004 entry draft from Guelph (OHL)
2011-12 stats: 46 games, 16 goals, 18 assists, 53 penalty minutes
Etc. Set career highs last season with 23 goals, 25 assists, 48 points, 10 power-play goals in 60 games. … Named captain on Sept. 12, 2011.