A little more than a year ago, after he had chosen the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent, Michael Cammalleri was working out at home in Toronto. He was sliding from side to side on a dry board – back and forth, back and forth – while talking to a former NHLer and a fellow former Michigan Wolverine, Cam Stewart.
"Cammy, what are you doing?" Stewart teased him. "Why did you sign with Montreal? If you don’t get 30, they’re going to be whistling you right out of there."
Cammalleri didn’t break stride – back and forth, back and forth – and didn’t miss a beat. He looked at Stewart.
"Thirty?" Cammalleri said. "I’m going to get 45, Stewie."
And on went the workout.
"That’s Mike Cammalleri," said Michigan associate coach Mel Pearson, passing along the story as he heard it from Stewart. "He’s just got confidence in his ability…He doesn’t back away from those challenges."
He’s drawn to them.
That’s a major reason Cammalleri came to Montreal, where you could put Team Canada in the bleu, blanc et rouge and the Canadians would have a hard time living up to the legend of the Canadiens.
And that’s why he can’t wait for his second season with the Habs, who raised the bar last season with back-to-back, seven-game playoff upsets – first knocking off the Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals, then knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Cammalleri didn’t get 45 last season. But he was on pace to score 38 goals before he sustained a knee injury, and after finishing with 26 goals in 65 regular season games, he added 13 more in 19 playoff games. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak was the Habs hero for keeping the puck out of the net, but someone had to put the puck in the net to make that stunning run possible.
"It was the most fun I’ve had probably as a hockey player," Cammalleri said. "That level of competition, that level of play, how good you’ve got to be, how good everybody is, how fast it is, how precise the game is at that level…I really enjoyed it. I really have a lot of fun playing that way."
This is what he dreamt about as a kid.
When Pearson came to Montreal for Game 6 against the Penguins, Cammalleri told him: "You’re in for a treat." Cammalleri scored two goals and drew a standing ovation as the Habs won 4-3 and forced Game 7. Afterward, Cammalleri took Pearson on a tour of the dressing room, showing off the plaques of the Stanley Cup-winning teams, pointing out some of the players, marveling that Jean Beliveau himself had been there that night.
"You could tell he was just so (excited about) the tradition of Montreal and hockey," Pearson said. "Most guys would not want to go to that pressure-packed situation, but I think he thrives on it. He really thrives on the pressure of the competition. You could see that at a young age."
The Wolverines got to know Cammalleri long before he went to college. His father, Leo, used to drive him from Toronto to Ann Arbor, Mich., for summer hockey camp as early as age 14. Just thinking about it brings a smile to Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Marty Turco, who played at Michigan from 1994-98.
"He’s small now," said Turco of Cammalleri, who is listed at 5-foot-9. "He was tiny then."
Cammalleri didn’t let his size get in the way of his big dreams. He had a chip on his shoulder, according to Turco. He declared he would play at Michigan. Sure enough, he played for the Wolverines from 1999-2001. He had skill and vision, but those weren’t the only reasons he had the ability to take over a shift or even an entire game.
"He has that 'it,' " Pearson said. "You can’t teach it. You can’t acquire it. You just sometimes have it or you don’t, and he has that 'it.' That’s what makes him a special player."
It wasn’t enough in the NHL, at first. Cammalleri split his first two professional seasons between the Los Angeles Kings and AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, then spent 2004-05 with the Monarchs because of the lockout. Even after he proved he could be a point-a-game player in the NHL – 34 goals and 80 points in 81 games with the Kings in 2006-07, and 39 goals and 82 points in 81 games with the Calgary Flames in 2008-09 – something was missing.
The playoffs. Cammalleri never appeared in the playoffs in five seasons with the Kings, and he lasted only six games in his one season with the Flames. After the Habs upset the Caps, teammate Scott Gomez, who won two Cups and went to another final with the New Jersey Devils, teased Cammalleri: “Welcome to the second round.”
The playoffs and the Montreal environment brought out the best in Cammalleri. When the tempo and intensity increased, when the Bell Centre rocked and roared, he became a go-to guy, not just the nice second or third option many considered him to be. When he had chances, he buried them. Cammalleri actually averaged fewer shots per game in the playoffs (3.15) than he did in the regular season (3.35), but his shooting percentage increased to 21.7 from 11.9. Simply put, he morphed into a lethal goal-scorer when it mattered the most.
"It was a lot of fun," Cammalleri said. "It was emotional. It was exciting. It was a lot of those things. The sentiment now is, 'It was almost good,' you know? You put in all that work and you get to the conference final. It would have been nice just to get to the Stanley Cup final."
The mindset now is not to view last season’s playoffs as some sort of magical, Cinderella run. Yeah, the Habs were the eighth seed in the East. But if you think it was a fluke that they upset the Pens and Caps and the puck just went in for Cammalleri, then you think they were lucky. And if you think they were lucky, that belittles them.
"I’m not much of a believer in luck," Cammalleri said. "The word luck doesn’t really make much sense to me. I think there’s reasons why things happen. I think it’s just…you work on things. You try to work on them the right way over periods of time, and you’re ready for certain opportunities."
Cammalleri thinks the Canadiens benefitted from last season’s experience. They had so many new faces, including himself, Gomez, Brian Gionta, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, Travis Moen, Benoit Pouliot and Tom Pyatt, not to mention P.K. Subban and coach Jacques Martin. They didn’t know each other very well; now, they’ve developed chemistry. They didn’t even have a captain; now, one will be named before the season.
Halak won’t be back, thanks to the controversial trade with the St. Louis Blues, and all of Quebec is concerned the job has been returned to Carey Price. But Cammalleri has his goalie’s back.
"I have so much confidence in Carey Price," Cammalleri said. "I just think he’s a fantastic, talented goaltender, and I think he really matured a lot as a person last year, the way he handled that situation. I was proud of him, and I just look forward to playing with him this year."
What can Cammalleri and the Canadiens do for an encore? Cammalleri is smart enough not to say he’s going to score 45 goals and the Canadiens will win the Cup. He said he is not worried about results, only about his teammates shouldering the burden together and becoming a better team.
But make no mistake: This is where Cammalleri wants to be, and he has worked too hard to get here to consider last season anything but a start. The chip on his shoulder is still there.
"That chip isn’t there to be just a good player in this league or to do it one time," Turco said. "As good an unforeseen playoff run that they had and him being right in the middle of it all – him stepping up and Halak and a few others – I mean, that’s just kind of a taste of it. Those things feed that fire… He wants more of it."