Mike Cammalleri is entering his third season with the Montreal Canadiens but this is the first time he will have the chance to step on the ice in his hometown for a season-opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
One year ago, the native of Richmond Hill, Ont., a few traffic lights north of Toronto, missed his chance because he was serving a one-game suspension for whacking another player with his stick in the Canadiens' final pre-season game. Playing at the Air Canada Centre in the NHL's oldest rivalry on Thursday night in front of his friends and family is so important, Cammalleri made sure he was not part of NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan's crackdown on head shots.
"I got some congratulations today from the boys for making it through the preseason without a suspension," Cammalleri, 29, said Wednesday as the Canadiens wrapped up a team-building session on Georgian Bay. "It's special for me to play in Toronto: Opening night, Habs-Leafs, all the implications, it's a dream come true, that's for sure."
When he was growing up, Cammalleri got to see a few Leaf games at Maple Leaf Gardens when his father Leo would score some tickets. The younger Cammalleri said his father would sometimes exchange the pricy red tickets for greys up in the rafters "because he said that was where the real fans sit."
But one memorable night in the early nineties, Leo Cammalleri managed to get tickets right behind the Buffalo Sabres' bench and hung on to them.
"I was really young, I must have been 10 or 11," the younger Cammalleri said. "I got Benoit Hogue's stick. He broke it a little bit in the warmup and the trainer gave me it plus a roll of tape, I still have both.
"The [television]camera guy said, 'Okay, I'm going to put you on.' I think it was Hockey Night In Canada, coast-to-coast. I was right there and my friends saw me, so that was a big thrill for me."