As he stepped into the media fray, Jack Campbell’s trademark smile and upbeat attitude were nowhere to be found. His usually bright, smiling eyes were masked by a pinkish hue and glossed over with the bitter tears of disappointment.
For the first time in his international hockey career, the 18-year-old Port Huron, Mich., native found himself and his teammates on the outside looking in at a gold-medal game. It was a foreign feeling for the most decorated goaltender in USA Hockey history, and it didn’t feel very good.
As the ultimate team player in the ultimate team game, Campbell wanted nothing more than to help the newcomers to the U.S. squad experience the thrill of standing at the top of the hockey world, just as he did last year when he helped beat Canada on Canadian ice.
“Every time I step on the ice I want to do whatever I can to help the team out,” said Campbell, who earned the IIHF directorate award as the tournament’s top goaltender.
“There are a lot of guys in the locker room who have won gold medals before and a lot of these guys haven’t won a [gold medal at] World Juniors. I went out there and battled as hard as I possibly could to try to get this done for the guys.”
In the end, Campbell’s 37-save effort in a, 4-1, semifinal loss to Canada was the only bright spot of the night, and his teammates were sick about that.
“He had a great game, and we didn’t help him out a lot. That’s our fault,” said U.S. forward Jerry D’Amigo, who locked arms with Campbell on the blue line as the Americans sang the National Anthem.
“He stayed in there and he battled hard. He’s a great competitor, and you wish you could’ve done more for him.”
As anyone familiar with the position can attest, a key attribute for any successful goaltender is a short memory, and less than 24 hours after the loss Campbell stood near his stall in the USA locker room watching teammates playfully wrestling as rap music echoed around the room. There was still one more game to play and the bronze medal was up for grabs.
And as he typically does, Campbell seized the moment like he snags a shot with his catching glove.
“I won’t lie to you, I wanted gold,” he said after backstopping the Americans to bronze in what was the first World Juniors medal of any sort won on home soil. “I had my heart set on that. The loss to Canada … was heartbreaking. It was tough to come back from.”
The next morning Campbell bid farewell to his U.S. teammates and headed back over the border with hordes of Canadian hockey fans, ready to finish out his season with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League.
Beyond that there’s a bright future for the first-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars, who hopes to continue working with NTDP goalie coach Joe Exeter, who Campbell credits with much of his success.
Mention names like McCartan, Craig, Barrasso, Vanbiesbrouck, Richter and Miller, and Campbell’s smile stretches from ear to ear. Ask him what it feels like to be a part of such a special fraternity and his face turns as red as the stripes on the American flag he represents so admirably.
“To be honest I’ve never thought about it, but just thinking about that now, thinking about those names, it’s pretty incredible,” said Campbell, who along with teammate Jason Zucker, became the first American males to earn three gold medals at IIHF events.
“Those guys were marquee goalies for the U.S. and set the bar for our country and what we’ve been able to do to develop goalies. I’m so young that I don’t have time to even think about that. I’m just trying to get better each day and help the U.S. win another medal each time I put on the uniform.”
In addition to his IIHF hardware, Campbell is Team USA’s all-time leader in each statistical category for goaltenders at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship with nine wins, 0.80 goals-against averages, .966 save percentage and five shutouts. He finished his NTDP career with the lowest goals-against average in program history (2.14) while also setting the record for shutouts in a career (10).
“His record speaks for itself. The championships he’s won, the games he’s won. Just as important he’s a fantastic kid,” said U.S. Head Coach Keith Allain, himself a former goaltender.
“Jack has the right personality. He’s able to put mistakes behind him and deliver in the big moments. Having done it in the past he has the confidence to know that he can do it again in the future. Jack has that kind of confidence.”
On and off the ice, nobody works harder than Campbell, and it’s safe to say that nobody loves the game more. While it’s hidden beneath his mask, Campbell practices and plays the game with a huge smile on his face.
“The position of goaltender is so tough, both mentally and physically that if you don’t enjoy it and you’re not excited by the challenge and you don’t get a thrill out of it, you’re not going to be successful,” Allain said.
“Jack is one of those guys who enjoys the battle, enjoys the competition and enjoys the pressure. I think you see the result of that.”
Having so much success at such a young age, it’s easy to forget that Campbell will be eligible to go for gold at next year’s World Juniors, which will be held north of the border in Alberta, Canada. Depending on where he winds up next season, whether with the Dallas Stars or their minor league affiliate, it’s not farfetched that Campbell could add to his championship trophy case.
“Each time I can represent my country it’s a special honor,” he said. “If I could do it again I would certainly want to come back and help the U.S. win another gold medal.”