After rough road, Port Huron’s Jack Campbell arrives as NHL All-Star with Maple Leafs

Detroit News

When so much of life is dictated by the unknown, sometimes you can get a chuckle out of the things that people do know.

Here’s an example: When they acquired him from Los Angeles in 2020, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe probably didn’t know that his new goaltender, Port Huron native Jack Campbell, was going to make an All-Star Game in his first chance with the club.

And then he did. 

Campbell was drafted 11th overall by Dallas in 2010, couldn’t get his shot with the Stars, and was relegated to backing up Jonathan Quick with the Kings. 

He arrived in Toronto in February 2020, one month after his 28th birthday, where he looked like insurance for injured goaltender Frederik Andersen — who was taken 176 spots after Campbell in that same NHL Draft, and currently ranks fourth in all-time wins for the Original Six franchise.

Here’s what Keefe knows now about Campbell:  “He’s a pretty humble guy and is quick to pass around credit.”

Keefe didn’t know when he took the podium Jan. 14, one day after All-Star rosters were announced, Campbell had done just that.

“It’s exciting for sure,” Campbell said in response to the opening question about his first All-Star Game appearance. He allowed himself just four words to speak on his own accomplishments before feeling the urge to retreat.

“It’s a credit to the team, how well they’ve played in front of me all year,” and so on and so forth.

More: NHL at the break: Surprises, disappointments and award contenders from the first half

Campbell has plenty of reasons to thump his chest. No path to the NHL is easy, but one that comes preloaded with expectations, at a position where finding consistency is like looking for a contact lens with a blindfold on, is more than difficult. 

It has a way of kicking you on your way to the ground, reminding you of the heights you’ve tasted, and laughing at how low you’ve fallen. 

“I think it’s a great story, it’s something that people can look at and learn from,” Leafs star Auston Matthews said.

“Just a lot of adversity that he’s been through, and no one route is the same to get to the same place. … That’s life sometimes. Lots of bumps and bruises. I think it just speaks to the mental fortitude he has, and the commitment and passion to being the best version of himself that he can be. I can’t find more words to describe Jack.

“He’s just an unbelievable teammate and unbelievable guy.”

How does Campbell feel now, knowing that those 12 years of trying to break through were worth it?

As a whole, not much different.

“For sure a special moment, but I am where I am right now,” Campbell said. “I feel great, and I’m just trying to build off of it and have a great next 12 years, and have a great day today.”

If you want to know a secret: The Leafs felt great about Campbell long before this day.

Goal-getter

On the wall of Pearson’s Peak Performance, an athletic training facility in Fort Gratiot, there’s a photo of Campbell in a Leafs uniform on the wall, signed.

The inscription reads: “Coach (Instructor Reno), Thank you for always working me into the trenches! You continue pushing me towards my NHL goals. Love ya coach, you’re the best. God Bless.”

“Instructor Reno,” otherwise known as Mike Pearson, is a family friend of the Campbells and Jack’s trainer/strength coach when he’s home in Port Huron. The two have worked together since Campbell was 17, and Pearson is one of a few people who’ve seen this journey unfold entirely.

“Instructor Reno is a Navy SEAL instructor,” Pearson said. “I would tear him up so much.”

Not many Navy SEAL instructors also double as a mentor, though, and Pearson provided plenty in that role as Campbell’s hockey career rocked up and down, like a boat in port during high winds.

Ahead of the 2010 draft, Campbell led Team USA to back-to-back gold medals in the U18 World Championships. But after being taken 11th overall, Campbell struggled over his next three seasons, but picked it back up in 2013-14. He had a .942 save percentage and 1.49 GAA as Texas won the AHL’s championship, the Calder Cup.

Pearson can recall Campbell laying out his goals that year.

“He showed me the goals that he had over the visor of the truck that he was driving at the time,” Pearson said. “There was making the All-Star team, winning a Stanley Cup, winning a Vezina Trophy.”

Imagine Campbell’s surprise, then, when he was sent back down to the AHL out of training camp the following season, and then was reassigned to the East Coast Hockey League just two months later.

In the pursuit of a dream that didn’t appear to want him back, the place where Campbell came from eventually got him where he needed to go. But ask his best friend Patrick Cansfield, and he’ll tell you what everyone else from Port Huron already knew: If anybody could get through it, it was Jack.

“I mean, yes, it was a very difficult time. There was a lot of doubt, I would say, as far as the direction that his career could potentially go for outsiders,” Cansfield said. “But for him, he believes in himself. He knows that if he puts in the work, he has the talent to be the best goalie out there.

“He just kept working, kept his head down, and one thing led to another.”

Seizing an opportunity

Pearson kept him working. By the time Campbell was headed to Los Angeles, Pearson said, “he looked like a linebacker.”

“He got a good reset out there, but then, Jonathan Quick’s out there, so that’s a tough situation,” Pearson said. “But that was a really good tipping point for him to start elevating and knowing himself. And then he was happy to get traded out of there, too, because he’d have a really good (chance to) start.”

With Andersen ahead of Campbell on the depth chart, Toronto made a phone call in summer of 2020 that’s a surprise without the benefit of hindsight, and sounds more like a prophecy with the benefit of hindsight.

“The Toronto organization got a hold of me. They said, ‘Mike, we know you’re going to be working with Jack this whole summer. We want to make him our No. 1,” Pearson recalled.

Andersen got hurt early on in the 2020-21 season, and Campbell made his debut on Feb. 7. He never gave the net back.

Campbell went 11-0 out of the gate, setting an NHL record for most consecutive wins to start a season and the record for most consecutive wins by a Leafs goaltender (previously nine). He was Toronto’s guy.

“Not many goaltenders are able to play at that level for that period of time,” Keefe said. “It’s been tremendous to just see it happening before your eyes every day at the facility, and see his personality and work on display, the confidence that he’s gained, and also that his teammates have gained.”

When the road to success is tumultuous as Campbell’s, you end up having a lot of people to thank once you arrive. Not just because he has people who helped him along the way — every successful person has that — but because the people who stuck by him, did so when there was nothing in it for them. 

“My parents, of course, my sister, they’ve been with me the whole time, made the dream a reality growing up,” Campbell said. “That’s a big part of my life and who I am. I just love Port Huron and the support I get from my hometown.”

Campbell remains committed to discovering the unknown. How does it feel to win a playoff series? How does it feel to be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy? To win a Vezina Trophy? How does it feel to lift the Stanley Cup? 

At 30 years old, it’s hard to imagine that Campbell’s life in the NHL is just getting started.

“It’s nice to get a little bit of a result and get nominated for the All-Star Game, which is great, but it’s really just the beginning,” Campbell said. “I know I can do a lot better. That’s what I’m working toward.”

Life is funny like that sometimes.

For a long time, only Campbell and a select few knew that he would eventually get here. Then for a short time, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in on the secret. And now, the entire NHL knows.

Jack Campbell, from Port Huron, Michigan, is here to stay.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.

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