How Habs landed Cammalleri

 

Editor's note: Beginning today, and for the next six days, Pat Hickey and Dave Stubbs will introduce you to the seven new members of the Canadiens who joined the team during the offseason. We begin today with Mike Cammalleri, followed by Travis Moen,

 
 
 
 
 

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Editor's note: Beginning today, and for the next six days, Pat Hickey and Dave Stubbs will introduce you to the seven new members of the Canadiens who joined the team during the offseason. We begin today with Mike Cammalleri, followed by Travis Moen,

Hal Gill, Paul Mara, Jaroslav Spacek, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez.

Mike Cammalleri believes size shouldn't be measured in terms of feet and inches.

"Size becomes a relative term," said the 5-foot-9 left-winger, who was one of the Canadiens' prime offseason acquisitions. "The way I look at it, if a player is going to compete and win a battle and be stronger than another player, and his team ends up winning as game, who's bigger?"

General manager Bob Gainey raised a few eyebrows with his Canada Day shopping spree. There has been concern over the past decade that the Canadiens are too small up front and, after saying he was looking for a big forward, Gainey traded for 5-foot-11 centre Scott Gomez and then signed Cammalleri and 5-foot-7 right-winger Brian Gionta as free agents.

But Cammalleri, who is coming off an 82-point season in Calgary, including 39 goals, said size has never been an issue in his career.

"What does size really mean?" he asked. "Does it mean height? If Andrei Markov goes into the corner with a guy 6-foot-5 and he comes out with the puck, who's bigger?"

- - -

Cammalleri has been playing big in the Canadiens' exhibition games, and will be ready to start the season despite missing the final two periods of Thursday's game against the Boston Bruins with a minor "lower-body injury."

His presence in Montreal offers a glimpse into the current state of the National Hockey League.

"It was an interesting experience," Cammalleri said of the negotiations that led the Toronto-area native and former Leafs fans to La Belle Province. "I had a good relationship with the Calgary organization, but it looked quite honestly that things weren't going to work out because of the salary-cap era we're playing in. They had committed to a lot of contracts.

"They were up front and honest with me about it. As I was approaching the free agency, you try doing your due diligence as far as where you might want to be and where you would fit in and what teams might be interested in you.

"Obviously, you can't talk to any teams, but you can look through rosters and speculate. I kind of did that, and Montreal was one team that kept popping up. I remember talking to my agent (Ian Pulver) and saying: 'What about Montreal?' The experience in Calgary made me realize that I did appreciate playing in Canada."

If Calgary was strapped for cap room, the opposite was true in Montreal, where Gainey was saying goodbye to 10 unrestricted free agents.

"I want to say that Bob was one of the first people to call, and as the day went on there were different teams in the mix, but you narrow it down," Cammalleri said.

His original interest in Montreal grew the night before the free-agent market opened, when the Canadiens traded Christopher Higgins to the New York Rangers in the deal for Gomez, who also is represented by Pulver.

"(The trade for Gomez) was a big factor, and Bob also told us they were trying to sign (Gionta)," Cammalleri said.

"He was talking to both of us at the same time, and we knew that, and we said: 'Wow, we could have a pretty good team here.' " Cammalleri said.

"You look at the (defence) corps and the goaltending. It looked like we could compete and, at the end of the day, it's the Montreal Canadiens."

Cammalleri said he was

reminded of a story from his days at the University of Michigan.

"They'd ask the freshman why they were there, and this one guy just said: ' 'Cause it's Michigan, man.'

"Well, I'm here 'cause it's Montreal."

The city's mystique isn't lost on someone who cheered for other NHL teams as a youngster.

"I was a Leafs fan growing up in Toronto, just like kids in Montreal grow up as Canadiens fans," Cammalleri said.

"I also liked Detroit, because they had some good teams, and I played for the Toronto Red Wings. I'm not a Leafs fan anymore."

- - -

Cammalleri's father introduced him to skating on a pond in suburban Richmond Hill when he was 3, and he started playing organized hockey two years later.

As he reached his teens, Cammalleri was faced with a decision on whether to play major-junior hockey or pursue a college scholarship in the United States.

"My dad had a big influence on my career, and he talked to me a lot about school," Cammalleri said. "It always appealed to him more than the major-junior route, (but) he and I never ruled out major junior and it became a tough decision. A lot of my buddies were going to the (Ontario Hockey League) and getting drafted high, and I would have been a high pick in the draft."

The decision became easier when Cammalleri was 15. While he was playing for the Junior Tier Two Bramalea Blues, he visited the University of Michigan and Michigan State.

"I was just so impressed with the University of Michigan and everything about it, and I just said: 'Hey, this is where I want to play.' " Cammalleri recalled. "I actually committed to going there when I was 15."

Most college freshmen are 18, and some schools encourage players to wait until they are 19 or 20 so they have more time to mature physically. But the precocious Cammalleri was 17 when he arrived at Michigan.

"I fast-tracked high school," he explained. "It was kind of a challenge at the time because

I was in night school, summer school, taking correspondence courses and playing junior hockey all at the same time. I remember my junior coach recommended I do that because he thought I'd be better playing two years in that league rather than three."

Cammalleri said the prospect of going to Michigan at 17 took away some of the lure of major junior.

"I was taking the next step at 17 rather than going to major junior at 16, so it was only one more year," he said.

Cammalleri said Red Berenson, the former Canadien who coaches at Michigan, had mixed feelings about his early arrival on campus.

"It was funny because Red said: 'We think you're good enough to come at 17, but we'd kinda like you to come at 18.' Then he came to watch me play a game in Burlington (Ont.) at 16, in my second year of junior, and after the game he said: 'No, we want you to come next year, we think you're ready.'

"It was pretty encouraging for me."

Cammalleri spent three years at Michigan before

signing with the Los Angeles Kings, who selected him in the second round (49th overall) at the 2001 NHL entry draft.

"I was drafted after my second year," Cammalleri said. "I played two world juniors in that time, and then after my junior year it was pretty successful until I came down with mono in the second half. L.A. signed me."

Two weeks after Cammalleri left Michigan, teammate Mike Komisarek left to sign with the Canadiens. They're part of a list of players who have left Michigan early,

including Mike Van Ryn, Jack Johnson, Jeff Jillson, Mike Comrie, Aaron Ward, Jeff Tambellini and, most recently, the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty.

- - -

Cammalleri's name can be found in a list of Jewish players in the NHL, but he describes his upbringing as "non-denominational."

"My dad's family are immigrants from Italy and Catholics, and my grandmother on my mother's side is from Czech, and my grandfather is from Poland - and they're Holocaust survivors.

"I never had communion or a bar mitzvah," he added.

"I was raised non-denominationally. I would go to my grandmother's house for Hanukkah and my grandmother on my other side for Christmas. We'd celebrate, so I got double the gifts."

phickey@thegazette.canwest.com

Tomorrow: Travis Moen

 
 
 
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