Mitch Callahan knows what time it is.
The Bakersfield Condors' veteran forward has been picking things up just in time for the playoffs, a place he’s frequented often during his American Hockey League tenure.
Prior to joining Bakersfield as a free agent last season, Callahan won two Calder Cup championships during a six-year stint with the Grand Rapids Griffins. The first came during the 2012-13 season and the second was in 2016-17. In those two seasons combined Callahan appeared in 180 games (playoffs included), scored 39 goals, recorded 51 assists and chalked up 201 penalty minutes.
Now the 27-year-old is in his second year in Bakersfield and has been hitting his stride, as the team is destined for its first playoff appearance since joining the AHL four years ago. Callahan, who has scored points in six straight contests, has 15 goals and 15 assists through 54 games this season.
“Couldn’t be happier with the way he’s playing right now. At the most important time of the year,” said Condors first-year head coach Jay Woodcroft.
With that said, the stats are one thing and Callahan’s experience is another. The Condors are banking on both heading into the 2019 postseason.
“Winner. He’s won two Calder Cup championships. That doesn’t happen by accident,” Woodcroft said. “He’s been through the battles and understands what it takes to go on long playoff runs. His experience will be invaluable for us.”
Callahan has a blue-collar, hard-working approach and said the key to winning is a close-knit locker room that sticks together. He added that points aren’t his modus operandi when he hits the ice.
“Never been a matter of stats. It’s more about contributing and trying to help out in any way possible with the team,” he said.
“I’m a hard working guy that gets in people’s face. I’m not afraid to go to the dirty areas and get people off their game a little bit. Never really shied away from the bigger opponents. Don’t think I ever will.”
Like many veteran players, Callahan has a career path all his own.
A native of Whittier, he was a sixth round draft pick — 180th overall — by the Detroit Red Wings in 2009. The 2012-13 and 2013-14 campaigns saw him put up back-to-back 70-game seasons with Grand Rapids, and he appeared in his first career NHL game. In turn, he scored a goal in his Red Wings debut.
The following season, however, Callahan suffered a knee injury while playing with Grand Rapids. It forced him to miss the remainder of the year.
Callahan would go on to play two more years with the Griffins and appeared in four games with the Red Wings during the 2016-17 season.
While Callahan said going through the knee injury was difficult, he was able to persevere and overcome it.
“It was definitely hard. You can’t compete with the guys on the ice, and then you’re facing an eight- or nine-month recovery,” he said. “You have to stick with it, do what you have to do to not make it a setback. Make it a positive. Take a bad situation and turn it into a good one.”
In 2014, Callahan also lost a mouthful of teeth when taking a puck to the face during a game. Callahan is still missing 11 teeth from the incident — three upper and eight lower.
“My mom won’t let me get them fixed until I’m done playing,” he quipped.
There was another speed bump last year, when Callahan was suspended 20 games for violating terms of the AHL's Performance Enhancing Substances Program. Callahan said earlier this season he made “a dumb mistake” and learned from it.
“It was just something I bought over the counter, I didn’t know what it was, just something for healing joints and stuff,” Callahan said of what led to his suspension. “Another lesson learned.”
Heading into this season Woodcroft and Callahan agreed to start anew — the first year coach represented a fresh opportunity, and Callahan was eager to prove himself.
“He had a tough year last year, he committed himself to being the best player he can be this season,” Woodcroft said. “It didn’t always go smoothly. But I’m really proud of his effort and his commitment to the team. It’s nice to see him have success.”
Signing in Bakersfield marked a homecoming of sorts for the 6-foot, 200-pound right wing.
Aside from returning to California, Callahan also has ties to the area — his father, Mike, played minor league hockey in Bakersfield during the mid-1990s.
While Callahan said returning to the NHL is always a goal, taking the ice in his home state is special.
“First time in 11 years (as a pro) I get to play in California. That’s pretty cool,” he said. “I also get to play where my dad played, share some memories together. So that means a lot.”
For now, in the present, Callahan looks to propel the Condors on a lengthy playoff run.
“There’s experience in being there. And he has that experience at this level in the Calder Cup. Winning two and being on a few other playoff teams, some very good teams,” Condors captain Keegan Lowe said. “He brings it every day. He plays that sort of junkyard dog style of game. Very valuable.”