Commentary

Cammalleri, the thinking man's player

Updated: May 25, 2010, 12:36 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- In the midst of the mayhem that is playoff hockey, Mike Cammalleri is an island of order.

Look at his sticks and they are neatly numbered. He's up to 85 on the season now.

Look at his skates and they, too, are numbered. He's on pair No. 7 now.

Not superstitious, just ordered.

"Now I know these are No. 7s, so I don't mix up this right one with a left one that's not, you know what I mean? It's that simple," he said. "I'll score a goal with a stick, and if the other one feels better the next period, I'll use it. It's all feel."

If you went to his condominium, there would be order there, too.

"Yeah, I'm a little bit of a clean, neat freak, a little bit. I like things just so," Cammalleri said Friday, a day after his Montreal Canadiens clawed their way back into the Eastern Conference finals with an emphatic 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.

"My girlfriend takes care of it at home, so she's even worse than I am, which is great. I really appreciate and enjoy that because I go home and there it is, everything's clean and I love that about her," the talented winger said.

Did she have to adapt to his penchant for order?

"No, she's worse than I am that way. That's one of the things that I find so attractive in her," he said. "I appreciate her for many other things, but that's one that I enjoy."

This has been a revelatory spring for both Cammalleri and those who cover the sport. After not scoring a goal in his final 12 regular-season games, Cammalleri leads all playoff scorers with 13 goals this spring.

Almost without fail, his goals have been of the crucial kind. Take Game 3 on Thursday night. The Canadiens had been shut out in Games 1 and 2 in Philadelphia to start this series. Scoring first seemed to be a crucial element for the Habs to get back into the series and Cammalleri delivered. He knocked a Flyers defenseman out of the way to create some space for himself at the side of the net and deposited the puck off the end boards before the midpoint of the first period.

It might have been a series-saving goal, as the Habs went on to deliver their most complete effort of the playoffs. From Cammalleri, it was just another example of a rare player who doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk. And no one loves to talk as much as Cammalleri.

You don't have to guess which dressing-room stall belongs to the Toronto native; it's the one that's surrounded every day by cameras, microphones and notepads. For reporters covering the Canadiens, there is a narcotic element to Cammalleri -- you need a little every day to get you through.

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau isn't the least bit surprised Cammalleri attracts a crowd.

"It's not because he's got [13] goals," Boudreau told ESPN.com earlier this week. "He's not giving away trade secrets, but he's telling the truth. That's his personality."

The playoffs are generally a time of numbing platitudes and time-worn clichés. But not only does Cammalleri rarely slip into cliché mode, he also knows how to spell it, along with lots of other big words, too.

"He's a cerebral individual who's always wanting to learn something new about things that interest him. That's his DNA," his agent, Ian Pulver, told ESPN.com.

Boudreau met Cammalleri the year the Los Angeles Kings drafted the forward as the 49th overall pick in the 2001 draft and he was coaching the Kings' AHL affiliate in Manchester.

"You know, sometimes you just see somebody and you like them instantly even though you don't know them," Boudreau said.

Cammalleri was like that. After meeting him at an after-draft party, Boudreau found out he and Cammalleri's father were from the same area of Ontario and they shared mutual friends. The three still get in the occasional round of golf and Boudreau has become something of a mentor to Cammalleri.

"He was so smart," Boudreau said. "He had a ton of self-confidence. Nothing was going to get in his way."

Playing for Boudreau in the AHL, Cammalleri was asked to do a lot of things -- kill penalties, run the power play. At one point, Boudreau told him he'd like him to play center, but didn't know if he could handle the traffic down low.

"You should have seen the glint in his eyes, 'I'll show you who's strong enough down low,'" Boudreau recalled Cammalleri saying.

"He's a unique individual, that's for sure," Pulver said. "Mike thinks about everything he does."

Take Cammalleri's view on the small gap between winning and losing.

"Everyone wants to dissect -- is it this? Is it that? All these little specifics of the game, that's based on results, right? Everything's negative when we lose, everything's positive when you win," he said. "But if you actually were to dissect the games in a more precise manner, you'd find that there's not much of a gap between the wins and losses, but it's how you play. Like I said, that's how it goes."

Not a surprising distinction from a man who has spent some of his downtime reading "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu.

"I'm still picking away at 'The Art of War' because the one I've got is [in] bullet form, so I just pick away at it from time to time. I'm on Pete Maravich's autobiography right now," he said.

But no fiction for Cammalleri.

"Nonfiction. I struggle with fiction, I struggle with fiction. I'd rather watch a movie fiction than pick up a fiction book. Just preference I guess," he said. "I like to try and learn from reading. I like the autobiographies; I'm into the business or self-help stuff. 'The Present' by Spencer Johnson is one of my favorites."

From the outset this spring, Cammalleri has brought determination to the ice, helping to defy the notion that this team was too small to take the postseason heat. He has also become the voice of a Canadiens team that was expected to exit the playoffs quickly.

He has spoken eloquently about the team's mindset and politely poked holes in various theories brought to his stall by the dozens of reporters who have made their way in and out of the Habs' locker room since mid-April. Nothing about him suggests complacency or self-satisfaction (unless you count him sticking his tongue out at Daniel Carcillo in Game 3).

Cammalleri insisted he has no illusions that he's "arrived" this spring.

"No, far from that," he said. "Nothing really matters right now except for how I play tomorrow night. I'm looking to get better tomorrow night than I was last game."

If it seems strange that a person so dedicated to order would excel at a game that seems so chaotic, Cammalleri, not surprisingly, views it differently.

"It's organized chaos. It is," he said. "There is a method to the madness, I think. I'm a big fan of dissecting the game. I like to talk a lot with my linemates about plays and try and draw up plays that we can do and try and anticipate what might happen on the ice. I enjoy that part of the game.

"Certain guys like it, certain guys don't. If you see me yapping all the time on the bench, that's what I'm trying to talk to guys about -- what we can do out there."

Montreal coach Jacques Martin said he's not at all surprised by Cammalleri's attention to detail.

"Well, I can't say I was surprised because I think I knew about Mike quite a bit through a colleague of mine that coached him before and spoke very highly of him as a person, as an individual, and as an individual that is kind of a perfectionist, really pays attention to details, really focuses on getting better all the time," Martin said Friday. "He will do what's required to look after himself, whether it's nutrition, whether it's fitness, all those things. He's a player that's really dedicated to making himself better."

As the reporters surrounded Cammalleri's stall Friday, spilling into the area where Brian Gionta normally sits, Gionta merely moved down a couple of spaces and began taking off his gear.

"No problem," he said. "He's holding court again."

Cammalleri gets more than a little ribbing from his teammates for his loquaciousness.

"Actually, when P.K. [Subban] joined the team, Scott Gomez announced that I'm now demoted, I'm now the second most arrogant guy on the team," Cammalleri joked. "I think that has to go with the talking. I've lost the title. And, actually, Bergy [Marc-Andre Bergeron] might have slipped ahead of me, too. I might be No. 3 now."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.