Popular former Ranger Callahan forced to call it quits

A day before tonight’s NHL Draft, the news was sad about Ryan Callahan. Due to a debilitating back injury, the popular former Ranger will be forced to call it quits.

It stinks. The prideful 34-year old from Rochester was a blood and guts, classic overachiever. Selected by the Rangers in the fourth round of the ’04 Draft, the 127th overall pick proved to be the kind of hard working player who would go through a brick wall to help his team win.

I can recall watching him represent Team USA at the 2005 World Junior Championships. In assessing Callahan, I could tell what type of player he would be. Seeing him outwork opponents on the forecheck while do a solid job on the penalty kill, I projected him as a third liner who fans would love.

Maybe it was just my sixth sense. I knew he would make the Rangers. That he did it following a dominant AHL season in which he scored 35 goals and had 55 points with 74 penalty minutes, speaks volumes about his work ethic.

Never the biggest in stature, the 5-10, 187 pound right wing became a staple on the classic Black and Blueshirt teams. Callahan did whatever it took. Going from a role player in the early days to a top six forward, who sacrificed his body for the good of the team, he became a fan favorite.

Known as Cally to teammates, coaches and fans, he eventually became the captain of the team. A tremendous honor for a gritty player, who hit hard and blocked shots even if it wasn’t always wise. Example number one would be diving in front of a Zdeno Chara shot to get the Rangers back to the playoffs in ’10-11. He broke his ankle and missed the first round against the Capitals. A series they lost in five games.

They won the big game 5-3. That’s what mattered most. Especially a year later after losing to the hated Flyers in a shootout that ended their ’09-10 season in Game 82. In the 60 games he played that season, Callahan wound up second in scoring with 23 goals, 25 assists and 48 points. He played primarily with Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky. Better known in these parts as the Draft Line.

A year later, he was a big part of coach John Tortorella’s club that overachieved by winning the Atlantic Division. In fact, they finished first in the Eastern Conference with a 51-24-7 record. Good for 109 points. In a good year where free agent addition Brad Richards helped improve team scoring along with top finisher Marian Gaborik, Callahan set career bests with 29 goals and 54 points in 76 games. That included a team-leading 13 power play goals and nine game-winners, which tied him with Richards for first on the team.

Even though they lost to the bitter Hudson rival Devils in six games during a competitive Eastern Conference Final, it was a positive step for a franchise that hadn’t gotten that far in the postseason since the ’97 run fueled by Wayne Gretzky and Mike Richter.

Following a second round disappointment to the defending champion Bruins in 2013, Tortorella was replaced by Alain Vigneault. Playing in the final year of his contract, the Rangers captain said all the right things despite it being a distraction. With his role decreasing under a coach who preferred more speed and skill, Rangers GM Glen Sather opted to keep defenseman Dan Girardi by re-signing him. That spelled the end for Captain Cally. He was dealt to the Lightning along with a pair of first round picks for Martin St. Louis and a second round pick on March 5, 2014.

It was a bittersweet day for fans. While some foolishly sided with the Rangers, who leaked Callahan’s contract demands as a way to use PR to turn some against him, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. It was like all the hard work and sacrifice he put in was forgotten.

As it turned out, it was better for both sides. St. Louis came over and helped lead the 2014 Rangers to their first Stanley Cup appearance in 20 years. There was the emotional goal he scored on Mother’s Day following his Mom June’s death. It sparked the team to its first ever 3-1 comeback, also beating the Pens for the first time in the second round. Ultimately, they came up a little short that June.

Ditto for 2015 when they ironically were eliminated by Callahan’s new team in a gut wrenching seven games in a very odd Conference Final. The road team won five of the seven including the final four. It was bizarre.

The injuries piled up for Callahan following a very good ’14-15 in which he matched his career high with 54 points while registering a career best 30 assists with 24 goals. He did some damage against his former team in a emotion return to MSG by scoring twice on the power play. It was strange.

Even with the Lightning losing to the Blackhawks in six games for the Cup in ’15, Callahan saw his role decrease due to the meteoric rise of Nikita Kucherov. Still an effective player on the forecheck and penalty kill under coach Jon Cooper, he toughed it out for two more deep runs.

However, the Lightning never could get past the Conference Final again. They lost to the Pens and Caps in consecutive years. Then came the very disappointing first round sweep to the Blue Jackets, who ironically were coached by Tortorella. Callahan only got into two games.

For his NHL career, he finishes with 186 goals and exactly 200 assists for a total of 386 points over 757 games split between the Rangers and Lightning. He wound up with 254 points (132-122-254) and 268 penalty minutes in 450 games as a Blueshirt. For the Bolts, Callahan had 132 points (54-78-132) in 307 games.

His best postseason came during 2012 when he went 6-4-10 in 20 games with the Rangers.

I’ll miss him. Thank you Captain Cally.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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