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Brian Campbell glad to be back with Blackhawks

Defenseman feels at home with inexpensive one-year contract

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @Cotsonika / Columnist

CHICAGO -- Brian Campbell is back home.

He was born in Strathroy, Ontario, near London, about halfway between Detroit and Toronto. He spent almost eight seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, enjoyed a short stint with the San Jose Sharks and played the past five seasons with the Florida Panthers.

But Chicago is where he won the Stanley Cup in 2010, Chicago is where he met the woman he would marry, Chicago is where they returned each offseason.

Chicago is where he wanted to be.

So when Campbell became an unrestricted free agent on July 1, he signed a one-year contract that reportedly can be worth a maximum of $2.25 million, less than half of what the Panthers reportedly offered him to stay.

When he came to the Blackhawks' annual convention Friday, all he had to do was hop in his car in the suburb of Western Springs, Ill., and drive about 20 miles to the Hilton Chicago across from Grant Park and Lake Michigan. It was no chore. He was happy to see the fans and reporters eager to talk about the upcoming season.

Video: Brian Campbell meets the press

"It's exciting," Campbell said. "I miss it. I know sometimes the convention can be a long weekend for guys, but for me I'm excited to be able to be a part of it again and be here. I drove in, and I'm like holy [moley], all the people walking the streets on Michigan Avenue in Blackhawks jerseys. It's just so well supported. The fans are so great here.

"I feel lucky. You're lucky to play for a team like this. A lot of people would want to be in my shoes. … If you've been in this organization, nobody wants to leave, and everybody wants to try to get in."

Campbell helped make Chicago a hockey town again. He signed with the Blackhawks as a free agent on July 1, 2008. They had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for five straight seasons but had an up-and-coming core that featured Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

Campbell was part of it as they went to the Western Conference Final in 2009. He was part of it as they won the Cup in 2010, assisting on Kane's overtime clincher in Game 6 of the Final against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was part of it the following season when they lost half the team to a salary-cap crunch, squeaked into the playoffs and lost in the first round.

And then he became part of the salary-cap crunch himself.

During the 2011 NHL Draft, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman reached Campbell by phone at his cottage in Ontario and told him he had a deal to trade him to the Panthers. He needed Campbell's approval because of a no-trade clause in his contract. It was business. The Blackhawks needed cap space. Campbell had five years left with a cap charge of $7.14 million.

Campbell had met his fiancée, Lauren, in Chicago. Her parents lived in Chicago. He loved Chicago and the Blackhawks.

"I didn't want to leave," Campbell said. "That's the ugly side of the game."

But he agreed to go. The Panthers offered a large role, and their GM was Dale Tallon, who was Blackhawks GM when he signed with them.

"Obviously I don't hold anything against anybody, because everybody's got to do a job," Campbell said. "I felt like for me it would be an opportunity to go to Florida and be a guy they could lean on. It helped Dale Tallon was there. It helped kind of knowing him."

Campbell played perhaps the best hockey of his career his first season in Florida. He produced 53 points, the second-highest total of his career, and won the Lady Byng Trophy. He continued to play well afterward. But while the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2013 and again in 2015, the Panthers missed the playoffs three years in a row.

Florida returned to the playoffs last season and appear primed for future success with loads of young talent. The Blackhawks lost in the first round like the Panthers did, and they have question marks up front and play in a strong division. Campbell has no guarantee he will go further in Chicago than he would have in Florida this season. Still, he's confident he made the right move.

"The guys are probably what I'll miss the most," Campbell said. "There's a lot of young guys in that room, but there are a lot of really good, young guys that are good away from the rink. But I'm not going to miss it that much, to be honest with you. I'm excited where I am."

On the ice, Campbell fits perfectly. He knows the coach and the players; they know him. He plays their style. Though he's 37, he hasn't missed a game in five years and said he feels he has "a few more years of great hockey" ahead of him.

"You add another puck-moving defenseman, that's good for us forwards to catch the puck in stride and play the game we want to at full speed," Kane said.

In the room, Campbell fits perfectly too. He has maintained a relationship with some of his teammates, playing golf at the same club with Toews, working out with Kane.

"He was a great teammate when he was here," Keith said. "I'm excited to hang out with him off the ice and go for some dinners with him on the road."

Tweet from @bcampbell_51: Girls just got their jerseys. Pretty happy girls today. #BlackhawksConvention

At home, well … it's home. Campbell and his wife have two daughters, who are 3 and 1. His wife's parents live five minutes away.

"It's huge for us, a little support," Campbell said with a laugh. "It's nice having people around to help."

Campbell feels lucky, but so do the Blackhawks. Once a cap casualty himself, Campbell came back and helped solved more cap problems. At a time when they were thin on defense and were parting with forwards Andrew Ladd, Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen and Dale Weise, he took a hometown discount to bolster the blue line and add a veteran element. He doesn't mind being called underpaid.

"Well, they've said I've been overpaid for eight years," he said with a laugh. "Hey, I'll see how it is on this side of the fence. I guess I'd rather be overpaid than underpaid, but hey, it is what it is.

"It was my decision, it was my family's decision, and believe me, it's worth everything for me to be happy every day and to play in such a great organization and be a part of this family."

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