The well-traveled Carter Camper is looking forward to his stay in Grand Rapids.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Sam Iannamico
Carter Camper believes he still has plenty of miles left in the tank.
The AHL veteran was on the move once again last season, his best yet in the pros in terms of points. Splitting the season between Cleveland and Tucson, Camper recorded 61 points in 68 games before being traded to Grand Rapids last June.
Now, at age 30, Camper will be playing for his ninth team in nine years – a rather remarkable number for a player who has been a prominent point producer for the better part of a decade. He has 330 points (87 goals and 243 assists) in 443 regular season AHL games, as well as 45 points (18 goals and 27 assists) in 51 career Calder Cup Playoff games.
Camper admits that he was stunned to learn that he had been dealt by Tucson to the Griffins, just four months after the Roadrunners had acquired him from the Monsters.
“When I got the call that I was traded again, I was shocked a second time,” he said. “Once the shock wore off, I realized I was going to an organization that is focused on winning. The Griffins have a storied franchise that has won Calder Cups and I’ve been really impressed by the team and the way they play.”
He would like nothing better than to settle down in one place for a time. He’s been bouncing around almost since the day he turned pro.
Born in Rocky River, Ohio, a western suburb of Cleveland, he is the middle of three hockey-playing brothers. Ben, the eldest, attended Colgate University while Jay, the youngest, played at the University of New Hampshire.
Camper chose to go to Miami (Ohio), the same school where his parents, Rick and Heidi, had met more than two decades earlier.
“When I stepped on campus at Miami for my visit and started talking to the coaches, it seemed so different from everywhere else,” he said. “Obviously I was familiar with the school, but it had nothing to do with my parents. I just felt like it was the right place.”
One of the RedHawks’ assistant coaches his freshman year was Jeff Blashill, who was in his sixth season at the school and would soon leave to become a head coach in the USHL (Indiana) and CCHA (Western Michigan University) before taking charge of the Griffins and later the Red Wings.
“The coaches let us play and I was given every opportunity to succeed,” he said. “We had strong teams all four years (two Frozen Four appearances) and I’m still great friends with a lot of the guys. I try to go back there for a week to train every year before the season starts.”
Camper was a perennial Hobey Baker Award candidate – a finalist his senior year – and he finished his collegiate career as the active scoring leader. He finished second on the school’s all-time list for points and assists and was tied for seventh in career goals.
Following graduation, he signed a free agent contract with the Boston Bruins and started his pro career in Providence. He had been overlooked in the annual NHL Entry Draft, so he came into the AHL with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.
“It’s been the story of my career,” he said. “I’ve always been considered too small or not fast enough or not flashy enough, but I’ve always been able to find a way with every team at every level and I’ll continue to play that way.”
He earned a call-up to the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins during his first full season (2011-12) in the pro ranks. He appeared in three games, scoring his first and only NHL goal against Alex Auld of the Ottawa Senators.
“I won a battle down low and went to the front of the net,” he recalled. “Matt Carkner, who was a big, strong D-man, tried pushing me and the puck squirted out to my backhand. I managed to get enough wood on the puck that it trickled across the goal line, but a goal is a goal. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
The date was Feb. 20, 2012, and it was the last time that he played in the NHL. “The Bruins were in a playoff push, so they made some moves and I lost my spot and never returned,” he said. “Their roster was strong from top to bottom, so it was tough to earn a spot.
“Unfortunately, if you don’t earn a spot early, you get pushed behind and eventually you get passed by other prospects. It was frustrating at the time, but now I realize it’s just part of the game.”
Camper played the next two seasons in Providence before the Bruins traded him to the Columbus Blue Jackets and assigned him to the Springfield Falcons. He spent a year with the Binghamton Senators before signing with the Washington Capitals organization for the 2015-16 season.
He struggled for most of his season with the Hershey Bears, but found his groove during the playoffs when he led the Capitals’ minor league affiliate in scoring and helped the AHL’s oldest franchise reach the Calder Cup Finals against his hometown Lake Erie Monsters.
“Hershey is a great place to play, but Cleveland is obviously my hometown and I thought the atmosphere there was close to the best I’ve ever played in,” he said. “We lost in four games (two in overtime), but getting that little taste helped change my attitude. Now all I want is to win.”
Camper played the 2016-17 season with the Albany Devils, then signed a two-year deal with the Monsters before last season. “Cleveland was still home and I was excited because I thought I was going to be there a couple of years,” he said. “Needless to say, I was shocked when I was traded.”
He’ll never forget his final game in a Monsters jersey. It happened to be Carter Camper Bobblehead Night.
“I was driving downtown and I saw the banner on the Q (Quicken Loans Arena) with my picture and teammates,” he said. “Here I am and I’m playing in my hometown in the same building where LeBron James plays and it’s my bobblehead night.
“I scored two goals and it was like I was on cloud nine. Then two days later, I’m traded. I know it’s a business, but it’s crazy how things work out sometimes.”
A bad case of the flu caused him to delay his subsequent debut with his new team, but he was on the ice when Tucson faced his old team a few days later.
He set a Roadrunners franchise record by tallying five assists in his first game, a 5-1 victory in Cleveland. “If the game had been anywhere else, I might have taken another night off because I was hurting, but I was not going to miss that game,” he said.
“Any time you’re traded, you have something to prove, a little extra motivation. You want to show the team that they made a mistake, so it was fun to be able to score five points. Hopefully I sent a message.”
Camper played well with the Roadrunners, but he found it difficult being so far from home. He and his wife (Erika) have two sons: Braydon, 4, and Wyatt, 1-1/2. “To be so far away from my family was super tough,” he said. “They came and visited me twice, but I went a whole month without seeing my little boys, which was really hard.”
He admits that he has become accustomed to changing addresses over the years, but that doesn’t mean that he likes it any better. “In a way, I guess I’m used to it,” he said. “At the same time, there are always new challenges with each city.”
The most recent trade, he admitted, made him feel a little guilty about where his chosen profession has taken him. “My wife has been a real trooper,” he said. “With two kids in the mix, she’s been through a lot. I don’t know how she does it 24-hours straight when I’m not there.”
Becoming a father altered Camper’s view of the game. “It definitely changes the way you look at things,” he said. “I know that just being able to share this ride with them is special. Hopefully I can continue to play and create those memories that they’ll have for the rest of their lives.
“Words can’t even begin to express the amount of love that you have for your children. I would do anything for my boys. I always thought that I would want my kids to be superstars in hockey, but all I truly care about is that they’re happy and healthy.”
Camper said he is anxious to play for the Griffins. “I’ve heard nothing but good about Grand Rapids and the guys there,” he said. “When I saw the players the team added in free agency, I was pretty excited. The team here seems solid on paper and I know the organization is committed to winning, and for an older guy who hasn’t won a Cup yet, that’s exciting.”
With his NHL dreams disappearing in the rearview mirror, he is focusing on what he hopes lies ahead.
“Now I want to be the best American Hockey League player I can be,” he said. “That’s where I am in my career and I’ll take pride in being my best. If I’m not going to be in the NHL, I want to win the Calder Cup. That’s now my focus.”