Jack Be Nimble

Although His Journey To The NHL Was Anything But Quick, Jack Campbell’s Career Has Finally Taken Off Under The Bright Lights Of Toronto

The road to the National Hockey League is a hard one, and it requires  more persistence than most people can muster. But few players have had a journey as long and arduous as Jack Campbell. Fewer still start out with as much promise.

Campbell is the American goalie who led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the North Division title, winning 17 games and losing just two in regulation in the 2020-21 regular season. Along the way, he put up W's in his first 11 appearances. It was the longest win-streak ever by a Leafs netminder. In fact, it was an NHL record. In the league's 104-year history, no goalie had ever started a season with 11 wins in a row. 

A year shy of turning 30, the man teammates call "Soup" has suddenly, belatedly, emerged as one of the league's elite goaltenders. This is a guy who a decade ago was a first-round draft choice and seemed destined for stardom. But then his career took an unexpected and lengthy detour to obscurity. At one point Campbell was minding the pipes, and feeling lost, in Idaho, suiting up in a 5,000-seat arena, 700 miles from the nearest NHL franchise. In his first seven pro seasons, Campbell appeared in just seven NHL games.

Now, though, he's at the top of the game, and the top of the league, and his turn in the NHL spotlight has been one of the best feel-good stories of this strange, truncated season of Covid hockey. 

"I had to wait for a while for a real opportunity and I finally got that," Campbell said after a May practice. "I think I've been able to show what I'm able to do. It's so much fun to be part of a great team. It's been a fun ride."

There was probably no better moment than when the horn sounded after the record-setting tenth win. Teammate Mitch Marner skated to Campbell, tapped a fist on his chest and then counted off on gloved fingers. One, two, three, four, five...all the way until he had no more fingers to count. It was a scene that bounced around social media and was celebrated on NHL and Leafs telecasts.

"That was pretty cool," Campbell said. "At the time I was in the moment and not thinking about it, but then it sunk in. Mitch has become a great friend, so it was special to share it with him."

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy, either. 

"Wherever he's been, if you talk to teammates, you hear, 'Best teammate, works his butt off,'" said his agent, Kurt Overhardt. "He's always just so positive with his teammates and enthusiastic for the game. Jack's a guy who, if you get to know him, you just want him to succeed."

Just ask Auston Matthews, who has provided much of the firepower for the Leafs this season.

"He's such an amazing person and he's brought a lot of joy into everybody's lives and in the locker room," said Matthews, who is the first American to win the Maurice "The Rocket" Richard Trophy for the most goals scored in a season with 41.

"He's been unbelievable all season and he's such a special person and we're all just so happy for him."

Campbell grew up in Port Huron, Mich., a small, maritime city at the southern tip of Lake Huron. His father, Jack Sr., owns an electrical distribution company. His mother, Debra, stayed home and took care of Jack and his older sister, Casey. As a kid, Campbell looked up to his cousin Marshall, who everyone called Duke. He was a pretty good goalie and naturally Campbell wanted to emulate him. Who wouldn't want to be just like a guy named Duke?

In 2008, Campbell was chosen for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, and helped Team USA to back-to-back gold medals in the IIHF Under 18 Men's World Championship. He also stopped 32 of 34 shots to lead a come-from-behind overtime win over Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2010 World Juniors. Several months later, the Dallas Stars took the kid from Port Huron with the eleventh overall pick. Interesting footnote: taken in the seventh round of that same draft was another goalie, a Danish kid named Frederik Andersen.

Campbell had committed to play at the University of Michigan but switched to the Ontario Hockey League.

"I started thinking it would be better to play more hockey and I just went with my gut," he said. 

After two seasons in "the O," he turned pro and Dallas assigned him to the Texas Stars of the AHL. His stats were good but not the kind expected of a high draft pick. In his third pro season, he finally got an NHL start, a loss in which he let in six goals.

Over the next two seasons, he struggled to hit his stride with the Texas Stars and was sent down-twice-to the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL, probably the last place Campbell figured hockey would take him. A lot of drafted players start in the ECHL, but most are from lower rounds. The Steelheads have only ever had one first-rounder wear their sweater, and that was Campbell.

How did this happen? Campbell was asking himself that just about every day. The problem was more between his ears than between the pipes. Every goal haunted him. He beat himself up every time he fished the puck out of his net. Hockey wasn't fun and a lot of days in Idaho he wondered what's the point of even playing. 

"I was really hard on myself back then," he recalled.

The road back started in 2016 when he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, whose goaltending coach, Dusty Imoo, rebuilt Campbell's game and his psyche. 

"He just made me have fun out there,' Campbell explained. "Mentally, that's a big thing. Once I started to gain confidence, we worked on becoming that athletic goalie that I was before."

"LA saw Jack's potential as an untapped asset, and they put the effort in to tap that," Overhardt said. "Jack's timeline may be different than other people, but he's got such a bright future going forward."

There were two more seasons with LA's AHL club and then on Feb. 18, 2018, he started for the Kings against red-hot Las Vegas. The Knights peppered him but Campbell allowed only a single goal on 42 shots. After seven pro seasons, Campbell had his first NHL win.

Every now and then, he re-watches that game. 

"It was pretty special," Campbell recalled. "My folks came out. It was like turning a page and not focusing on the past. It was like, 'I can do this.'"

The following season he appeared in 31 games as the Kings' primary backup. In February of last year, Campbell learned he was about to be dealt to Toronto. 

"I took a couple days for the deal to be final, so I wasn't sleeping much," he said. "If somebody trades for you, they really want you. I was excited to be going to a strong team and start a new chapter."

Campbell started this season as backup to Frederik Andersen, the same guy who was taken in the same draft as Campbell, in the seventh round. Campbell looked sharp in two early wins, was sidelined about a month with an injury, then picked up a couple more wins. 

When Andersen got hurt, Campbell stepped in and kept piling up one win after another, eventually setting the record, securing the starting role for himself, and leading the Leafs into the playoffs.

After that practice in May, Campbell had a chill evening all planned out-a steak with corn and potatoes for dinner, a movie, then a good night's sleep. Still, he was itching to be back on the ice with his teammates the next night. 

"Everybody's pretty close. You don't see that everywhere, so it's pretty special when the team gels like this."

So, is hockey fun again? 

"Yeah," he replied. "Absolutely." 


Neal Boudette is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

 

Issue: 
2021-06

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