Jeff Campbell is making progress on the road that he hopes will eventually lead to the NHL.
Story by Mark Newman
Hockey players almost never skate in a straight line and their careers rarely take the most direct route.
In 2000, center Jeff Campbell left his small Ontario hometown to play hockey in Michigan. It’s taken almost seven years, but he finally took to the ice as a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins for the first time this season.
Campbell’s career has seemingly come full circle, having started at Western Michigan University, where he played four seasons before stops in the UHL, ECHL and AHL brought him to the attention of the Griffins.
“I feel like I’m starting to fit in,” said Campbell, who signed with Grand Rapids on Nov. 13 after starting the season with the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL.
Campbell had been invited to the Griffins’ training camp last fall, but he wasn’t able to crack the lineup until injuries and callups opened up a spot for him about a month into the season.
“I was definitely glad to get the call from Grand Rapids since it’s closer to home and to where I went to school,” he said.
“I thought I had played well in training camp but the numbers just weren’t in my favor.”
Campbell grew up in Hensall, Ontario, a village of about 1,000 located 45 minutes north of Sarnia, across the Canadian border from Port Huron.
His work ethic was cultivated in the farming community of his hometown, the “white bean capital of Canada.” If you’re thinking gas, you’d be right, since Hensall is also the future site of a 200-million-litre ethanol plant to be built adjacent to the country’s largest inland granary.
Campbell, who came to WMU from the Strathroy Rockets of the Western Junior B Hockey League, made a strong impression during his first season with the Broncos. He was the CCHA’s top-scoring freshman, totalling 26 goals and 27 assists in 37 games.
Although his point totals decreased after his freshman year – he blew out his shoulder during his sophomore season – he never lost his penchant for producing points in the games that counted most.
"Don’t let the numbers sway you,” Jim Culhane, his former coach at Western, told NHL.com last season. “You always hope that your best players ‘play big’ in the big games, and Jeff always did throughout his career for us.”
One of Culhane’s fondest memories from Campbell’s collegiate career came during his senior year when WMU played a powerhouse Cornell University squad to a 5-5 tie. Campbell also played a key role in the Broncos earning a split with the perennially strong Maine Black Bears.
“We never won as many games as we should have, but we won a lot of games against some of the better teams,” Campbell recalled. “I had a great time at Western. They treat their players really well there, and we always had great student support.”
Campbell, who is three classes shy of earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education (with a minor in geography), developed leadership qualities while at Western, where the measure of a man isn’t always calculated in points.
“Jeff is one of the brightest players I’ve ever coached,” Culhane told NHL.com. “He’s got a very intelligent hockey mind and, physically, he always kept himself in great shape. I could talk about the athlete and the hockey player, but when you think of Jeff, he’s a really special kid, not only on the ice, but away from the rink.”
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Campbell turned pro immediately following his senior season. He made his debut with the Kalamazoo Wings, appearing in 12 UHL games toward the end of the 2003-04 season. “It was nice as a student to make a little money while still in school,” he recalled.
Although it wasn’t the highest level of hockey, it was still professional. “It was certainly different from the style of play that I knew from college,” he said. “It helped me when I went to my first pro camp because I knew a little more about what to expect.”
He played the last two seasons in Gwinnett, which is the county northeast of metropolitan Atlanta. “We drew about 6,000 fans per game, which is really good for the ECHL,” he said.
Gwinnett made it all the way to the finals last season when Campbell was named the league’s CCM Vector Most Valuable Player, a year after being named to the ECHL’s All-Rookie Team.
Campbell posted back-to-back 30-goal seasons at Gwinnett, and eventually earned a seven-game tryout with Lowell in the AHL a year ago.
“I felt I played really well in Lowell, although I didn’t score as much as I would have liked,” said Campbell, who earned a goal and an assist in his short stint with the Lock Monsters (now Devils).
“I felt like I was ready to take the next step. We didn’t win a championship (in Gwinnett) but as far as personal accomplishments go, I thought I had proven myself as one of the top players in the league.”
So it was a bit of a disappointment to Campbell when he failed to crack the Griffins’ lineup out of training camp. Undeterred, he returned to Gwinnett, where he had 17 points (11-6-17) in 11 games before getting the call to come back to Michigan.
Since joining the Griffins, Campbell has earned a regular spot in the lineup. He recorded his first two-goal effort at the AHL level on Jan. 5, a feat he repeated on Feb. 7.
“I’m feeling more comfortable with my teammates on the ice and where they’re going to be, so I’m starting to make more plays,” he said. “The key is I know what’s expected of me now.”
If anything, it’s that feeling of ‘home’ that has allowed Campbell to thrive. He may be back to where he started, but he’s still headed in the right direction – toward realizing every Canadian kid’s dream of playing in the NHL.
Not that it’s been an entirely smooth road. Like every young player, Campbell had to struggle to find his footing.
He didn’t score a goal in his first 15 games as a Griffin. He was finally rewarded on Dec. 26 when he recorded his first tally in Van Andel Arena. “It wasn’t like I wasn’t getting the chances,” he said. “I thought I was getting opportunities; it just wasn’t happening.”
Frustration might be too strong a word, but Campbell was definitely squeezing the stick a little more as the games passed.
“The longer it went, the more pressure I was putting on myself,” he said. “It was a big weight off my shoulders when I finally got that first one against Peoria.”
Campbell admits that it took awhile to find his groove, but as he begins to enjoy more success, his confidence will continue to get stronger. Eventually, he would like to get a shot at the NHL, but for now he is content to enjoy the journey.
His former coach thinks Campbell might someday get the shot he’s hoping for.
“He's smart, he can score and make plays and he gets around the rink very well,” Culhane said. “With the evolution of today's NHL, it opens a window for a guy like Jeff.”