Undrafted and unsung, Colin Campbell is building a reputation as a hard-nosed player who isn’t afraid of doing the dirty work.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Sam Iannamico
Follow Colin Campbell on the ice and you may notice that he’s not the fastest or flashiest player in the game.
But there’s a ferocity and tenacity that distinguish his play as he separates the puck from one opposing player after another. Whether he’s plowing forward on the forecheck or digging deep in the corners in the defensive zone, he isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty.
Now in his third full season with the Griffins, Campbell is a proverbial workhorse.
“I think I’ve come a long way,” he says, agreeing that it’s his smarts rather than his skill that has allowed him to get as far as he has in hockey. “It’s about making great decisions, valuing the puck, never turning it over. Whether the puck is in our end or theirs, I need to use my size and strength to try to make plays.”
Campbell was taught the value of hard work by his parents, both of whom worked in sales. His father, Richard, now retired, was a salesman for Merck, the giant pharmaceutical company, while his mother, Elaine, worked in sales for Clairol, the personal products division of Procter & Gamble.
“I think my work ethic came from them raising me right,” Campbell said. “They put me in the right situations and got me around the right people, and it helped me get to where I am today. There are a lot of things in life that you can put towards hockey and that’s what they did.”
Campbell started skating between his third and fourth birthdays. While the backyard pond provided months of joy during the winter, his love of the sport was cultivated in warmer weather, playing shinny on the streets of Pickering, Ontario, with friends.
“We lived on a court, so we played street hockey every day after school,” said Campbell, who has one brother, Kevin, who is three years older. “I was always a forward on the ice, but I played goalie – I was Dominik Hasek – in street hockey.”
Campbell played other sports, including golf, baseball, football and rugby, until he was 15 and decided to stick with hockey, a decision all the more tumultuous given that it was the same year that his mother lost her battle with breast cancer.
Elaine Campbell had been extremely active with her boys’ sports, lending a hand wherever she could, whether it was running fundraisers, organizing golf tournaments or holding post-game pool parties.
“My mom was such a great mentor and she inspired me so much,” Campbell said. “When you’re only 15, you still have a lot of growing up to do and I think (her death) made me grow up a lot faster than maybe I wanted. She really was a great woman and she truly made me the person that I am today. Looking down on me, I would hope she would be very proud of how far I’ve come.”
Campbell played for the Toronto Red Wings Midget AAA team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League at age 15, then played a couple of junior A hockey seasons for the Vaughan Vipers before deciding to try college hockey.
“I knew there was life after hockey, so the education route made sense for me,” he said. “I knew hockey careers are only so long and I definitely wanted to get into business after hockey. I felt like the college route wouldn’t hurt me in terms of development, so it was the best choice for me.”
Campbell chose to play hockey for Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
“They were on me right from day one,” he recalled. “I had other teams that were interested, but I wanted to go where I could excel the fastest. I knew going to a smaller school with a good hockey environment could provide the best opportunity, and it paid off.”
Campbell had a solid freshman year then blossomed during his sophomore season. He lost most of his junior season while recovering from shoulder surgery, but he finished his collegiate career with a solid senior campaign (14 goals and 15 assists for 29 points in 36 games).
“With fewer games during the college season, we had more time to work during the week,” he said. “One of the things I got to work on during college was my speed. I knew going into the pros, the game would be a lot faster. I think my speed increased every year in school.”
For a while, Campbell wasn’t sure if he would get a chance to play after college.
“I never was a big name, so I didn’t get my hopes up too high,” he said. “Even so, it was still a bit of a disappointment when I saw a few of my friends being drafted and I didn’t go, but it didn’t slow me down.”
In a way, not being drafted might have been a blessing in disguise. As a free agent, he was allowed to negotiate his own path. “Ultimately, it worked to my benefit because it allowed me to pick and choose the organization I would go to,” he said.
Campbell signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Detroit Red Wings, knowing that he would be playing for the Griffins, their top affiliate. “Having attended college in Michigan, I was familiar with Grand Rapids,” he said. “Of course, Detroit is close to Toronto, plus there’s the history and culture of the Red Wings, so I thought it would be a good fit for me.”
He played in 13 games for the Griffins on an amateur tryout at the end of the 2013-14 regular season, scoring one goal and then appearing in three playoff games. “I had a slow start,” Campbell admits. “I went from college, where I was one of the go-to guys, to the pros where I had a limited role, and it took a while for me to adjust to that.”
His play started to improve during his first full season with the Griffins in 2014-15. He tallied two goals and three assists in 44 games. “The assistant coaches helped me stay positive and helped me put in the necessary work to get better,” he said.
Campbell began making real inroads last season when he played a career-high 70 games, recording 10 goals and eight assists.
“One of the things you learn is that in order to be a good pro, you’ve got to show up every night,” he said. “It’s true there are a lot of games in the season, but you’ve got to find a way to be rested and mentally prepared so you can bring your best every night.”
He benefitted from the fact that he played on the same line with Louis-Marc Aubry for two years in a row. Chemistry can be just as important for muck-and-grind players as it is for highly skilled front-liners.
“When you play with a guy that long, you know exactly where he’s going to be,” Campbell said. “You know their tendencies, what they’re going to do with the puck, and I think we were able to benefit from that. We were the fourth line, but we often didn’t feel like it.”
With Jeff Hoggan or Dan Cleary complementing their crash-and-bang style, Campbell and Aubry not only excelled as checkers, but they found a way to score goals with some regularity.
“You’ve got to find a way to get the puck to the net,” said Campbell, who remained with the organization by signing a one-year deal with the Griffins in July. “You’re there to win battles and score dirty goals. That’s the game today. Goalies are so big and everyone is so positionally sound that it’s hard to get good opportunities to score.”
Campbell is rarely going to score style points, but he has no problem with his role. “Right now, I’m very comfortable. I know exactly what I have to do,” he said. “There’s no sugarcoating. It’s up to me to go out every night and just do it. I want to continue to progress and earn increased ice time.”
With newfound confidence, Campbell is excited about his prospects for the 2016-17 season.
“I feel like I’ve found my place in the league,” he said. “I’m very blessed to be where I am at this point in my career. I need to keep doing the things I’ve been doing the past year and build on that. I’m just going to keep working hard and try to make it to the NHL.”