TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Twenty-four of the Blackhawks' top prospects slowly filed onto the bus on a rainy morning in the resort town of Traverse City, Mich. and headed for the back where they settled into their seats, ready for the 20-minute ride from the team hotel to a tournament that they hope will help springboard them toward NHL careers.
Meanwhile, seated next to each other in the second row speaking in low tones were two men who combined for 2,104 career NHL games and five Stanley Cup championships.
Brian Campbell and Chris Kunitz could have ridden off into the sunset following distinguished NHL careers, but are instead back to riding buses filled with hockey players as members of the Blackhawks organization, each tasked with helping develop young players.
Officially, Campbell's title is Player Development Coach while Kunitz is Player Development Advisor. In simpler terms, they serve as mentors and confidants to players at the NHL and AHL levels.
Campbell and Kunitz are scheduled to spend the bulk of their time in Rockford this season and to that end, each took a turn learning the ropes behind the bench as an assistant coach during the first two games of the 2019 Traverse City Prospect Tournament that will continue Monday with divisional play and conclude with Tuesday's championship round.
The former NHL players' roles are not only vital to the organization, but to themselves as they embark on chapters of their post-playing lives. While youngsters get the kind of detailed advice that can only come from former players who have been through the wars and survived to tell about them, Campbell and Kunitz are avoiding some of the pitfalls that can befall newly retired professional athletes.
"You play hockey because you love it - you love to be around the game," said Kunitz who retired from the Blackhawks following the 2018-19 season and immediately took a job with the organization. "This is another piece of the hockey world that you just didn't think of when you were in your own little playing bubble. For me, it's exciting to be back at the rink so I know that's a good feeling."
Kunitz spent 15 seasons in the NHL and helped the Ducks capture the Cup in 2007 and then the Penguins in '09, '16 and '17. At 39 and having played for five NHL teams, Kunitz hung up the skates and became a member of the Blackhawks front office. In his role, Kunitz will mostly help develop players in Rockford for the Blackhawks-affiliate IceHogs.
It will certainly be a change of pace.
"You're still trying to figure out what you're good at, what's going to work for you as well as the ownership and the team that you're working for," Kunitz said of changing careers. "So it's trying to piece it all together. I'm not trying to do it all in one motion and luckily enough I've found a position that is going to work for both sides and I'll still be able to be at home with the family and things that are important to me.
"Any time you don't have something to look forward to, I'm sure it's tough for guys," Kunitz continued. "I think the last couple of years the thought of not playing anymore is in your mind more often and having a family at home you need to make sure you have things in place to help you. I'm not saying that it's not tough because you're not a player and things are changing but you're trying to do it as a family and understand what the next step is."
Campbell is furthered removed from his playing days, having retired from the Blackhawks following the 2016-17 season. He immediately began working for the team in the business operations department before shifting to the development staff in the summer of 2018.
"Right when I retired I wanted to take time off," Campbell, 40, said. "But the Hawks had been so good to me so I just kind of looked at a lot of different areas within the organization and now I'm doing player development and I've really enjoyed that aspect of it.
"It's a job," Campbell continued. "You have to do something, I feel like. I don't want to sit around at home all day long. I have young kids so I don't think it's something where I need to be gone all the time because I like to be home and helping them out. But it's kind of almost like I have more kids now here and helping them along. It keeps you young and keeps you motivated to help."
Campbell has been particularly helpful to top defenseman prospect Adam Boqvist. The two have spoken often since the Blackhawks selected Boqvist with the 8th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.
"We work on everything: gaps, stick (and) how I can use my feet better," Boqvist said. "It's good to have him here. I'm just trying to take everything in. You looked to up to him when he played and you still look up to him because he's a good person. It's fun to have him around."
Video: Shift Change
Along with Campbell, Kunitz-a former forward-has been a font of knowledge for the prospects, including 2019 third-overall selection Kirby Dach.
"Those are the guys you watch when you are young and now they're on the ice with you and they're giving their little tips and tricks and what they did to be successful," Dach said. "Any time you're around those guys you just want to be a sponge and soak in as much information as you can.
"On the ice you're just trying to find the little quirks that help you around the net that can maybe score you one or two extra goals," Dach added. "Kunitz with how good a skater he is on his edges and learning that side of the game and then off the ice just how to take care of yourself aware from the game. That's huge at this level. I'm all ears to hear what they did to help themselves throughout their pro careers."
The information passed on includes how to handle different situations both on and off the ice.
"These kids come in and are so professional in a lot of ways," Campbell said. "They've been groomed for so long and it's changed a lot from years ago when guys kind of had to learn on their own. I just try to have a good relationship with them off the ice and if I do that and they want to ask questions and pick my brain then I love that part of it. I know when I've worked with Adam Boqvist he's asked me a lot of questions about career and preparing for the future. I'm just trying to be help them and have them know that I'm available."
Said Kunitz: "The kids are mature beyond their years when they get here but sometimes it's little questions about where you're living or things you need, anything that you've come across in your playing days or things you should do before games. Everybody has a different routine. Some things that worked for me didn't work for other guys. You learn later in your career that you can try 100 things and maybe only five work for you so the faster you can find something to knock off the list that's not going to work is something you don't have to worry about."
Campbell and Kunitz each have homes in the Western Suburbs and their new schedules allow them to spend time with their respective families. It is for that reason neither of them have put much thought into the long-term directions of their front-office careers. They are each living in the here and now while they learn the tricks of their trade.
"I'm just kind of taking it slow and see but I really like this role that I've taken on," Campbell said. "I'm excited about it. I enjoy doing it and I'm trying to get better. I'm fine where I'm at and I just keep plugging away and learning."
Kunitz has a similar mindset.
"You know what? I'm still trying to just piece it all together and see what I want to do," he said. "You need to see what's going to work for you and your personality. It's a lot of fun being on the ice and seeing these guys and the exuberance that they bring. You try to remember the time you came out for your first rookie camp and how you felt and try not to fill them with too many things and let them enjoy it. Time will tell where you fit and what works for you."