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The Verdict: Campbell Earns It For Autism

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

You’re 30, you’re a bachelor in Chicago, and you’re earning big money. You play a game for the city’s best team, you can’t walk down the street without being recognized, and you really shouldn’t have a care in the world except your next shift on the blue line for the Blackhawks.

But you’re Brian Campbell, so you care about people besides yourself.

“I’m lucky enough to have a job where maybe my name is a little better known than someone with a regular job,” he said. “So this is something I can do, and something I want to do.”

So, next Wednesday night, Feb. 10, when he could be kicking back and relaxing between games, Campbell will be the point man for a Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind. The event will launch his foundation, Campbell for Kids, and benefit the Chicago Chapter of Autism Speaks, along with the Beard Elementary School that specializes in treating children with special needs.

Campbell’s teammates will be there, as will coach Joel Quennville, plus team ambassadors Denis Savard and Tony Esposito, both Hall of Famers. Attendance is not required but they’re all going, which tells you how members of the Blackhawks inner circle feel about each other. There will be a band, a dee jay, unlimited food and drink, and a live auction. If you join the poker fest, and you happen to eliminate a player, he'll take the jersey off his back and autograph it.

Some athletes wait until they retire to give back; some athletes never feel the urge. But Campbell, in the prime of his career, realizes there is no better time than right now. His family and friends have been spared, so autism was an unknown to Campbell when he played for the Buffalo Sabres until one of his pals and teammates, Eric Boulton, got involved. Boulton was traded, but Campbell decided to carry on. When he signed with the Blackhawks as a free agent in July of 2008, he reunited with an old friend.

“I was in Buffalo with the Sabres when Brian was there…I’ve known him for 10 years,” said Pete Hassen, the dynamic Senior Director of Market Development & Community Affairs for the Blackhawks. “We got to talking about him doing something here similar to what he did in Buffalo with autism. Brian loves Chicago, loves playing here, and he’s really into his foundation. Brian isn’t just putting his name on it. He’s putting his heart and soul into it.”

If you didn’t see the video clip, you must have been in a cave. Four Februarys ago, in Greece, N.Y., not far from Rochester, Jason McElwain was a senior manager for his high school’s basketball team. As an autistic youngster, Jason gladly did his thing, not imagining how life could change with just one prompt from a coach. McElwain departed the bench, entered the game, and took aim. Nothing but net. Again and again, he fired away. Six three-pointers and a two-pointer inside four minutes for 20 points! An instant classic if ever one existed. That video was broadcast around the globe, McElwain went to the White House, and a copy of his excellent adventure was obtained by Lindy Ruff, coach of the Sabres.

“He just showed it to us as an inspirational story,” recalled Campbell. “Watching that sent shivers up my back.”

Unfortunately, autism is chilling in other ways. Modern medicine has defined it—a complex group of developmental brain disorders—but what triggers it remains a mystery. Recently, a comprehensive study pointed to the likelihood of a link between vaccination of children for disease and subsequent occurrences of autism. But, just the other day, the Wall Street Journal reported the British journal that published the “evidence” issued a retraction. Another in a series of false starts seeking a how and why.

Meanwhile, the statistics are staggering. One out of 110 children is diagnosed with autism, rendering it more pervasive than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. What’s worse, the rate of prevalence is increasing annually. Thus, a portion of proceeds from Campbell’s fundraiser will be designated for 100 Day Kits that are created specifically for families with newly-diagnosed autistic children, all the better to help them cope.

“I spent a fair amount of time in Buffalo around the kids,” said Campbell. “They’re great. But so are their parents. There is so much stress on a father and mother. They have to be strong. It really grabs you.”

Indeed, autism is a vexing issue. Ernie Els, a world-class golfer who has donated memorabilia for Wednesday’s auction, has an autistic son, Ben. Ernie and wife Liezl are from South Africa, they travel the globe in a private jet, and enjoy a privileged existence.

“But there is always Ben,” said Ernie. “We can care for him now and give him unconditional love around the clock. What you really worry about is, what happens with Ben after we’re gone? All the money in the world doesn’t solve that. We must find a cure.”

Some athletes learn how to spend it; some athletes, like Els and Campbell, figure out how to earn it.

Ab McDonald

Lord of the Rings

Ab McDonald visited the United Center Wednesday, but he left his jewelry back home in Canada. Which is just as well. McDonald was a member of the last Blackhawks team to win a Stanley Cup in 1961. But that was his fourth consecutive year as a champion. He was on Cup teams with Montreal in 1958, ’59 and ’60.

“Better to be lucky than good,” said McDonald, a sturdy left wing. “When I was traded to Chicago by the Canadiens, I was fine with it. I knew a lot of guys on the Hawks. And I remember telling Stan Mikita during that season, ‘we can win the Cup here.’ Stan and I were playing golf just last week in Florida and he reminded me of it. The Canadiens, don’t forget, had won five straight Cups and were going for six in a row when we beat them in the playoffs before winning it all against Detroit in 1961.”

McDonald went on to become the first captain of the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins in 1967 and also the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association in 1972.

“Back with Bobby Hull,” said McDonald. “He made that league, and as a result, everybody’s salary went up. I don’t know if players of this era appreciate what Bobby Hull did for all of us, but when he put the WHA on the map, it changed everything.”

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