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Tampa Bay's Ryan Callahan strives to bring lighter side of life to cancer patients

Lightning star Ryan Callahan and his wife, Kyla, embraced the signs and created "Cally's Crew" to help families fighting cancer.

The signs kept amassing over time, each one striking close to the heart, and pretty soon Ryan and Kyla Callahan felt ready to dive all-in.

When Kyla was younger, one of her cousins died from a brain tumor at age 6. When Ryan played for the Rangers, he remembers the emotional impact of meeting cancer survivors after games, and when he signed a six-year contract with Tampa Bay in 2014, they created Cally’s Crew, a program that invited patients and their families to suites at Amalie Arena. Seeing the impact up close, they began wondering what more they could do. “We could see how much it meant to the kids,” Ryan Callahan says. “It was always in the back of our head, then the idea came up: let’s start a foundation, let’s see if we can make a difference. Then who knows where it goes from there?”

The Callahans began researching, seeking advice from legal minds, asking questions of other athletes who entered the non-profit sector. Some suggested they simply raise money and steer it toward other charities, rather than deal with the headache of creating an entirely new organization. “People are trying to let us know that it’s a lot of work, not to just jump in without knowing,” Ryan says. “My agent [Steve Bartlett] asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’” The answer was always yes. “We really wanted to make sure 100 percent of the money was going to the place we wanted,” Ryan says.

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So they filled out the 501(c) tax exemption, aligned with three pediatric cancer foundations in Tampa and, last week, unveiled the Ryan Callahan Foundation. Families of young survivors can submit their stories on the charity’s website, and those chosen will become guests of the Callahans at Lightning games. Once each month, they’ll host a day trip—“either a fishing trip or a trip to Busch Gardens, something like that for the family. Then quarterly we’ll pick a family and send them on a three-day, four-night Disney cruise, or send them to Disney World for a couple days. Our whole thing is trying to create family memories and moments that are away from the treatment center, away from getting chemo,” Ryan says. 

Though the pieces for his foundation were already in motion before last season, when the winger had 28 points in 73 games for Tampa Bay, Callahan recently received even further validation of the cause. Roughly five months ago, around the time the Lightning were en route to their second straight Eastern Conference finals appearance, Mike Callahan, his 63-year-old father, was finally cleared of prostate cancer. Ryan mostly kept quiet about the two-year battle his father was fighting, and the NHL calendar precluded him from spending much time in Minnesota, where Mike received hormone therapy and chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Callahan. “It was tough. Not too many people knew. He’s the rock of the family, and to see him as sick as he was, lost a lot of weight… It affects you, it really does. But he was strong. He’s the type of person who never lets anybody else know how much he’s hurting or what his feelings are. His strength was remarkable through it all. He was the one getting the treatments, but he was probably the one strongest about it.”

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Callahan says his father continues to visit doctors every three months for routine checks, but otherwise has received a clean, cancer-free bill of health. “It put things in perspective for me, gave me a glimpse of how painful this disease, how hard it can be on a full family unit,” Ryan says. “Before that I never really dealt with anything really close to me like that.”

While speaking with via telephone, Callahan also hit on several other topics:


On captain Steven Stamkos, who re-signed with Tampa this summer for eight years, $69 million: “I talked to him a lot in the summer, but it wasn’t all about the contract. You don’t really ask if he wants to talk about it. Obviously, you’re there to talk to him about it. Situations like that you leave the player to his own. It’s the hard part of the business, I think. He’d give me an update here or there, where his head’s at, and to him it never wavered. He always wanted to be back in Tampa. From my conversations with him, this is where he wanted to be.”

On his favorite Stamkos memory: “My first full year with the team, first game of the season, and he took a one-timer. He hit me directly in the chest with the puck. The puck went out to the neutral zone, and I’m skating back trying to catch my breath. Meanwhile [defenseman Victor] Hedman ends up scoring the overtime winner going back the other way. I still give him s--- about it, that he hit me in the chest with a one-timer.”

On rehabbing from off-season hip surgery, which he had June 21: “Been skating for the last two weeks or so, right on schedule. Everything’s progressing as it should. Conservatively [planning to return in] November. Obviously, it’s still some time away. It could be flexible. It started about in January when I really started noticing it, then progressively got worse as the year went on, to the point that I had to get something done. As far as we went into the playoffs was another thing, knowing I’d miss a good chunk of the season, then I got picked to go to the World Cup. Having this surgery wouldn’t allow me to participate, but I’m happy I’m going to be healthy.”


On watching the United States at the World Cup (this interview happened before the Americans lost to Canada and the Czech Republic, finishing 0-3 in pool play): “I’ve been watching quite a bit. It’s always so special being able to represent your country. Luckily enough to do it in two Olympics, and I realize that my time to represent my country is sometime going to end here. I’m disappointed I didn’t get another opportunity knowing that I made the team. There’s really no feeling like it. You play for the Rangers, or the Lightning or any NHL team—that sweater means a lot. But you put your country’s colors on and you wear that crest and see the flag in the room everywhere, it’s not a city rooting for you, you’re playing for a country, which is amazing.”

On his current whereabouts: “I’m at my daughter’s dance class.”