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Verdict: “Ecstatic” Campbell left a lot on the table to return to Chicago

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

He was the second-to-last member of the Blackhawks to touch the puck in 2010, and now he is back for a second tour with the team he helped win a Stanley Cup that benchmark season.

Eight years to the date that Brian Campbell matriculated to Chicago as a coveted free agent, the veteran defenseman signed a one-year contract on Friday to return to a place “where my heart is…I’m ecstatic.”

He is not alone. Campbell’s wife, Lauren, is from the Chicago suburbs, where they reside with daughters Harper, 2, and Everley, 1. The girls are too young to comprehend what comfort this brings to the family, but as “Soupy” said, Lauren has the “smiley emoji going pretty good today.”

Although 37, Campbell still has the legs and mobility of a top-four defender. For a third straight season, he played all 82 games with the Florida Panthers, led them in ice time with an average of 22 minutes and 17 seconds and posted a +31 plus/minus rating, the best mark at his position in the National Hockey League.

On the market again, Campbell received more prosperous offers. However, in the very definition of a hometown discount, he chose a franchise that once

had to overpay free agents but, with three championships in seven years, has transformed itself into a destination point for athletes who crave winning.

“Obviously, it’s an honor that guys believe in what we’re trying to do,” said Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman.

“I never wanted to leave here in the first place,” said Campbell, who was dealt to Florida in June 2011 among a spate of talented individuals the Blackhawks were forced to part with because of the salary cap. “This is the best organization in professional sports. Rocky Wirtz is the best owner.”

Campbell, a stellar performer for the Buffalo Sabres and briefly the San Jose Sharks, joined the Blackhawks on July 1, 2008, an early indication that an enlivened franchise in Chicago just might be up to something. Thus, he was on the ground floor of a massive rebuild-turned-renaissance.

“You never know, of course,” Campbell said. “But you could see that a lot of really good pieces were in place. Halfway through my first year, you could see what guys here were made of. We had a pretty good run. Then, Marian Hossa came over (another message). He missed a bunch of games early, but when he started playing, we were sort of complete.

“Then in the playoffs, we really kind of got rolling. Like a train. Maybe some of the young guys were too naïve to know they weren’t supposed to be doing what we were doing. But we had Jonny (Toews) stirring the pot. He does everything right. Everybody fed off that. Then we swept San Jose, which had a tremendous year. And it was like ‘Wow…we can do this.’”

In Game 6 of the Final at Philadelphia, it was Campbell who provided Patrick Kane with the puck for the overtime clincher that few saw but none will forget.

“I was at the blue line with it,” Soupy recalled. “I could have shot it. Maybe should have. But instead I just passed it Patrick off the half-wall and then let him do his magic. I pretty much stayed there, just prepared to play more defense.

“Next thing I know, there’s Kaner coming around from behind (Flyers goalie Michael) Leighton, and he’s throwing his gloves up in the air. I didn’t know what was going on. I’m thinking, ‘What’s this guy doing?’ He’s jumping all over the ice and he didn’t even score. This game isn’t over. I sure wasn’t going to throw my gloves off.

“Then I look over at the bench. Guys are starting to go crazy. I never saw the puck go in. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later somebody reminded me I had the only assist. Didn’t matter to me. Are they still cleaning up that visitors’ locker room in Philly? Probably. What a night.”

Although he seems destined to perform heavy blue-line duty along with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, Campbell said he will do whatever, whenever. A top-four role is not given, but presumed. The back end of the back end is more fluid.

“We have a lot of young guys knocking at the door,” Bowman said.

In Campbell, who left a lot on the table but brings a lot to the table, the Blackhawks welcome a familiar face to a door he never wanted to close.

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