First off, is there anything better than the Stanley Cup playoffs? The first games of the first round are just as intense as the Super Bowl or the seventh game of the World Series or NBA Finals. The New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators barely have a history and in the blink of an eye they've turned into the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. And second of all, with respect to the title of this little column, I'm not saying Ryan Callahan is perfect. By definition, something is either perfect or it isn't -- there's no almost-perfect or sort-of perfect or kind-of perfect. But regardless of that, I guess I'm saying the Rangers' captain is kind-of perfect. Sure, Callahan could be "more perfect" if he scored 60 goals a year and piled up 80 assists (and if he would have somehow prevented Saturday night's loss), but he's close to perfect in the way he approaches his profession on and off the ice (and you're probably wondering if I get paid by the word, and if I'll ever get to the point already).
All of the qualities that Callahan possesses are everything a New York fan (or any fan really) asks for. First off, he's homegrown, and there's something special about a player who comes up through the system and fans get to witness the blossoming of said player first-hand. New York Knicks fans have fallen head-over-heels for Tyson Chandler, and like Callahan, the center is all one could ask for in a player. But, unfortunately, New York has to share him with Dallas. Mavericks fans have a special place in their hearts for Chandler, so we don't get him all to ourselves. So while other cities may respect Callahan for the way he plays, he's all ours. He's New York through and through.
There's no player in the NHL who's more blue-collar than Callahan. As we all know it's impossible to give more than 100%, but somehow Callahan seems to do that. There's an extra "Ryan Callahan Level" that he consistently plays at. Hockey, more than any other sport, is filled with players who put in every ounce of effort they can, but the Rangers' leader does just a little bit more, whether it's blocking shots, doggedly forechecking, killing penalties or making a nuisance of himself in front of the opposition's net. Anyone who throws himself in front of a Zdeno Chara slap shot with little disregard for his own well-being is the definition of tough, which is how Callahan's season ended last year, of course. But he never once hesitated in doing it all again this year, blocking 88 shots (not 88 Zdeno Chara shots, but overall), which was third in the league for forwards.
New Yorkers always admire a larger-than-life personality -- a Babe Ruth, a Reggie Jackson, a Joe Namath, even a slob just like them in the form of a David Wells -- but if one is going to boast, brag and make predictions, he better belt three home runs in a deciding World Series game or author a Super Bowl upset of epic proportions, or one heads right to buffoon-ville, where someone like Rex Ryan is attempting to wrest himself from. But the humble, even-keeled, quiet-without-being-intimidated personality works best in New York, and that's what Callahan possesses. While the colorful Walt Fraziers and Keith Hernandezes are beloved, so are the Don Mattinglys and Jerry Koosmans and Jean Ratelles. Callahan fits into that mold -- the consummate professional, who's quick to credit his teammates and coaches, and never glorify himself or succumb to any look-at-me showboating. And despite what fantasy world Sidney Crosby is living in, Callahan is certainly no whiner.
Callahan is a leader by example, in the Derek Jeter mold, but even Jeter has had a few small problems, with whispers that he wasn't always the most supportive teammate (see: Alex Rodriguez) or that he held petty grudges (again, see: Alex Rodriguez) or that he could engage in trifling feuds (yes, see: Alex Rodriguez). Callahan was the captain of the Rangers before he became the captain of the Rangers. He was born for the role. And we never hear a peep about any off-ice controversy. He's never been arrested. He doesn't have eight children by eight different women. He doesn't have to be told how to act like a professional. Even the impeccable Eli Manning has the snubbing of the San Diego Chargers incident in his past that some just can't get over, and has had his leadership and quarterbacking skills questioned (though that may say more about his detractors than Manning himself).
Though Callahan hasn't Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!'d or Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!'d his way into New York history yet, he's certainly a clutch player, as we saw in Game 1 of the opening round series with the Ottawa Senators, when he set the tone for the game (and maybe the series, as the Senators countered Callahan's and the Rangers' physical game with a little 1970s Flyers-type goonery in Game 2) with his hard hits and just as importantly opened up the scoring for the Blueshirts. His seven hits and blocked shot were all in a day's work for the right wing. Everything was amped up in Game 2, with the intensity level risen, and the Rangers mainly lost due to a couple of unlucky bounces, but Callahan's team has met every challenge this season and overcome every bump in the road with their (and his) usual lunch-pale approach to the game and stayed the course without panic while coming out successful on the other side.
The Ranger captain is tough, he's relentless, he's a leader, he produces, he's professional, he's homegrown, he never embarrasses -- he's the embodiment of all that is good in sports. And that may make Ryan Callahan as perfect a professional athlete as we have in New York. And out of all the Blueshirts, it would be least surprising if the first-round series ended with these three words: "Callahan! Callahan! Callahan!"