|(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)|
There were some bona fide National Hockey League superstars taken in the 2010 Entry Draft. All the buzz that year was around the choice between Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin. After those two went first off the board, other choices included Erik Gudbranson, Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Johansen and Jeff Skinner.
Selecting in the eleventh slot were the Dallas Stars. Then general manager Joe Nieuwendyk and his team chose an all-American goaltender with an all-American name: Jack Campbell.
“They took me pretty high for a goalie,” said Campbell. “That’s a pretty big commitment they put on me.”
Campbell is still waiting to make his mark in the NHL, but he knows that the perfect place to put the finishing touches on his resume is with the American Hockey League’s Texas Stars.
“When I was 18, I got drafted and I wanted to play [for Dallas] that year. Only a few guys have ever done that; it’s really rare," said Campbell. "It took me years to figure out that it doesn’t happen unless the circumstances fall, and you’re given just the right chance. I wouldn’t be honest with you if I said I didn’t want to be there right now, but I realize I have a lot of work to do.”
From an early age, Jack Campbell has always been ‘the guy’ in net for his team.
“I’ve always been the type of guy who can play 50 or 60 games a year. Growing up, I was the only goalie on my team until age 13 or 14, and I’d love to play 50 or 60 games here this year.”
When he was scratched during a preseason game in his rookie year in Texas, the young Michigander wasn’t exactly sure where to go to watch the game. It wasn’t arrogance; he’d just never really been a scratch before.
The native of Port Huron, Michigan, came up through the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and first got national attention in the 2010 World Junior Championships. In the gold medal game against heavily favored Canada, the United States’ starting goalie, Mike Lee, was chased after allowing three goals on just seven shots. Campbell stepped into the net and stopped 32 of 34, earning wide acclaim as the reason the U.S. side was able to defeat the Canadians by a 6-5 margin in overtime.
Just five months later, Campbell heard his name called by Dallas at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at STAPLES Center. Marc Crawford, Dallas’s head coach at the time, called out his talents and size but also pointed to the intangibles, “He just keeps on winning.”
Campbell joined the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires and was later traded to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in his second year in major junior. After the Greyhounds missed the playoffs, Campbell made his professional debut with the Texas Stars on March 23, 2012. Campbell got into the Stars’ last twelve games of the year as Texas was already out of the playoff race and looking forward to the next season.
Over the next two years, Campbell and Swedish goalie Cristopher Nilstorp would compile an impressive resume, helping their club capture two division championships, a MacGregor Kilpatrick Trophy, and the 2014 Calder Cup.
The road to that championship wasn’t without difficulty though. Campbell had a phenomenal season statistically, posting a 1.49 GAA and 0.942 save percentage. Unfortunately, his stellar season was hampered by injuries. He only played sixteen regular season games and four Calder Cup playoff games. His 12-2-2 record was great but not where he wanted to be.
“Personally, I want to play a lot of games and prove that last year was a fluke as far as injuries go,” said Campbell. “I’m just taking it one day at a time, but my body is feeling good.”
It was tough for Campbell to watch so much of the playoffs from the press box.
“It’s so hard. Selfishly, you want to be in there because I just love being on the ice and helping the team win. I had a chance to be on the bench in the Finals, but that was tough too," he said. "I came back and felt like I was ready to play, but I had been out for almost a month. You have to look at what’s best for the team.
“We ended up winning the whole thing, and there’s nothing better. You forget about not playing or getting injured when you lift that Cup.”
Campbell has learned the importance of consistency after his up-and-down season last year. More than anything, his veteran goaltending partner, Cristopher Nilstorp, taught him the value of always being ready for the road ahead.
“I learned from him how important it is to be on your game all the time. When I was out with my injury, he had a couple of tough games, and that was tough on the team. From then on, Nilstorp was so rock solid, and it shows how much team confidence comes from the goalie showing everyone you’re calm and confident. It showed me how to be a number one goalie.”
Dallas Stars goaltending coach Mike Valley agrees with the sentiment, “As the goaltender, you want to be the rock back there. When you’re in the dressing room, everyone wants to know, ‘Hey, Jack’s here, and everything’s OK’.”
Part of being that rock is being calm, cool and collected even when things aren’t going so great. Campbell had a reputation of being a very ‘heart-on-your-sleeve’ goalie when he got started in the professional game.
“As a goaltender, it’s great to see emotion on guys, but at the same time it has to be controlled," Valley said. "Jack has done a nice job over the past couple of years learning to control that. You want to be emotionally under control because goaltending is a tough position. You’ll have nights you feel great, and you lose the hockey game. You’ll have nights where you don’t feel great, and you win. Just staying with it is so important.”
Campbell points to his new veteran netminding partner, Jussi Rynnas, as a great example of the calm demeanor that is required to become an NHL regular.
“He’s such a competitor, but he’s really even with his emotions. He’s such an even-keeled guy. That’s something I’m working towards, but that comes with age, time and experience. Having Jussi here, it’s good to show me how he handles everything.”
Many NHL GMs would already have a player like Campbell backing up nightly in the NHL. However, Dallas GM Jim Nill was raised in the Detroit Red Wings organization, which is famous for taking a patient approach with their prospects. Nill signed two veteran goalies this season in Rynnas and Anders Lindback and indicated he wanted Campbell to be ‘the guy’ for the Texas Stars this season to earn his spot with Dallas.
“Following Jim Nill’s philosophy in the organization, there’s no free spots. It’s all about competing and earning your spot,” Valley said.
But for the hyper-competitive Campbell, that was a tough message at first.
“Ultimately, it takes a little longer to make it because you have to prove that you’re ready and you’ve earned the right to be there. It makes you a much better player.
“When you’re younger you want to be there right away, and that’s how I used to be. But now I know when I get there that I need to show them I am going to stay there and be that franchise player rather than being that guy who was ready for just a couple games.”
That doesn’t mean that Campbell has yet to make his NHL debut though. Early last year, Dallas was facing injuries and called on Campbell for a game at the Honda Center against the Anaheim Ducks.
“I didn’t find out I was playing against Anaheim until the team meeting. We had our video session, and [Dallas head coach Lindy Ruff] said, ‘Let’s make sure we have a great game because Jack’s making his debut.’ It was really cool because I had no idea. Once they told me that, it was all about getting ready for the game.”
The game was a loss on the scoreboard but a solid showing for Campbell, as he stopped 41 shots from players including Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Teemu Selanne. After the game, Lindy Ruff said, “For his first game, I thought he pitched a pretty good performance for us.”
Given the opponent, there were bound to be comparisons between Campbell and Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler, who was drafted just one spot behind Campbell in 2010. Many fans see the contributions Fowler is making to Anaheim and wonder if choosing Campbell was the right call. Campbell is well aware of the comparison but has his eyes set on the long game.
“I get the comparison because right now people want the results. Cam Fowler is a great player, already an Olympian. But I can guarantee that in ten years or so, my career numbers will be up there. So hopefully there will be no regrets in picking me.”
Regardless, the fans of Cedar Park have really embraced their goaltender, and he has embraced them right back.
“My parents and grandparents and whole family always taught me respect and morals. I just treat people the way I want to be treated. It’s not fun not being acknowledged.
“It’s a lot of fun playing for the fans here, not just because they’re loud and cheer for me. It’s the sincerity behind it. Being an American and being a goalie here, it really hits home with the Texas fans. I have a blast playing here, listening to the fans cheer when they call my name in the lineup. It’s so much fun, and it doesn’t go unappreciated.”
Campbell, like any professional athlete, meets thousands of fans through the course of a year. What fans say sets him apart is his sincerity.
At a team autograph signing, one fan told of how Jack got up out of his chair to walk across the concourse and chat with a young girl with Down syndrome, whose name he recalled even though they’d only met once over a month before.
“They chatted like they were best friends,” said Delanie Weigand, the girl’s mother. “Finally, we had to coax him back to his chair because there was a line of people waiting to get his autograph. He was sincere, engaging and just a true pleasure.
“He was one of our favorite Stars before all of this, but now he is one of our favorite people.”
It’s certain that Campbell won’t forget the fans in Cedar Park when he surely heads on to the NHL in the coming seasons.
“It will be a lot sweeter feeling being up there next season knowing that I filled out the process," he said, "and I’m completely ready to go."