Walking the quiet streets of Strathroy, Ontario, in August, you’d never know of their secret past as a boulevard of rough and tumble dreams. But rewind the scene a couple of decades, flip summer to winter, and the images transform.
It’s easy to imagine the grunt from a hard check into a snow bank. Pass a garage, and you’d swear there was the loud thwack! of a tennis ball against the door. And if you listen hard enough, you can hear an argument between brothers over who gets the first half-hour in the basement, practicing slap shots and wristers.
It’s here that the town’s first and only NHL player, Brian Campbell, learned how to outhustle bigger boys, outsmart older players and outhit slower ones.
Strathroy offers a pastoral setting to newcomers. Its vast blue skies, fields blooming with soybeans, corn and wheat, and pastures brimming with cattle, mirror the smaller towns you’ll find on the outskirts of Chicago.
But don’t let the setting fool you. The pavement here isn’t only worn by months of harsh winter every year, but by relentless games of road hockey. It was on this strafed pavement where Campbell learned perhaps the most important lesson of all — the merit in outplaying anyone who gets in his way.
“Brian had one idea from when he was two years old, and that’s hockey,” says Campbell’s father, Ed.
“And it hasn’t been easy for Brian,” says his mother, Lorna. “He didn’t jump any rungs up the ladder; he worked for everything he’s gotten.”
It’s apparent how fond the Campbells are of their son, and he of them, the two people he acknowledges as giving him every opportunity to succeed in life. That doesn’t stop a mischievous Brian from teasing his dad about how stuffy the house is as he enters, or consistently questioning his mother’s hockey expertise.
In fact, the affection is so strong that it’s no surprise Campbell turned to his closest confidants, his parents and two older brothers, as the biggest decision of his life loomed this summer.
|Brian Campbell with parents Ed and Lorna outside Brian's childhood home in Strathroy. |
“I’d heard Chicago was definitely interested, and they were always in my top three from the start,” Campbell says. “I’ve always wanted to come to Chicago. The city, particularly its proximity to home, is a perfect fit.”
Still, when his long-awaited free-agency tour left the station, Ottawa was the destination where Brian traveled with his parents. The Senators were a potential suitor, in the city where the defenseman began his junior-league career. Making the decision that would find him committing his prime years — perhaps the remainder of his career — Campbell held marathon phone sessions with his two brothers, Craig and Darryl. Close friends also weighed in on the decision.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to play closer to home,” he says. “I’d gotten spoiled in Buffalo, seeing how enjoyable it was to have friends and family come down. The Blackhawks made it clear that I was their No. 1 priority, and they were mine. It’s not much more complicated than that.”