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Decision in junior produces an inspiring NHL career

by Dan Rosen

Sabres' defenseman Brian Campbell credits his parents for encouraging him when he doubted his ability to succeed.

Brian Campbell couldn’t go home. Not yet, at least.

It was 1995 and he was a 16-year-old draft pick for the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67s who needed a confidence pick-me-up in the worst way. He didn’t think he was big enough, strong enough, or good enough to play major junior hockey.

“What saved us is his mom and dad saying; ‘Try it out, and if you don’t like it you can always come home,’ ” longtime 67s coach Brian Kilrea said.

Campbell never did go home, and 12 years later, the decision to give it the old college try may be his best ever as he’s now an All-Star defenseman with the Buffalo Sabres.

“You still tell yourself that it can go just as fast, and it does surprise me everyday,” Campbell said. “Going to the All-Star Game last year, I didn’t really feel comfortable in that situation. I was hiding behind everything, standing in the background, thinking; ‘Why do I deserve to be in a dressing room with some of the players that are here?’ I was just the guy trying to stay in the League, and now I’m in this situation?”

If Campbell’s start to this season is any indication, he’ll once again find himself in that situation in Atlanta come late January.

Campbell enters Thursday’s game at Boston leading all defensemen in the League with 11 points, including a power-play goal and 10 assists, which is also tops among the League’s defensemen. His plus-6 rating is best on the Sabres.

“Whatever he was going to do he was going to be successful, but hockey was his game and he realized that when he got a lot of confidence,” Kilrea said. “We weren’t sure which way he was going to lean, and when he decided that he was going to stay that was a great moment for us because we knew he could play.”

Campbell proved it in 1999, two years removed from being selected in the 6th round – 156th overall – by the Sabres. He was named the MVP of the OHL and the Canadian Junior Player of the Year after leading Ottawa to the Memorial Cup.

He debuted with the Sabres the following season, but regular minutes in the NHL were hard to come by. Campbell was on a Buffalo to Rochester yo-yo for three seasons before finally sticking with the big club in 2002-03.

He still wasn’t guaranteed ice time. He was always looking over his shoulder.

“I was in Buffalo, but sitting out games as a healthy scratch and coming back in,” Campbell said. “You’re a little nervous about making a mistake.”

“Before the lockout, almost every game was a one-goal game. Coaches were not as forgiving with younger players,” said Sabres assistant coach James Patrick, who was Campbell’s teammate for parts of five seasons before the lockout. “I think everyone in our organization could see Brian getting better at that time, and I knew as a teammate he was willing to do what it took more than any of our other young players at the time as far as work ethic, watching games, training off the ice.”

Campbell, though, started playing regular minutes while in Finland during the lockout season, and his confidence returned. When the NHL returned, with its wide open game and restrictions against clutching and grabbing, Campbell’s career took off.

“When you weigh 190 pounds and you’re getting tugged by a 220-pound guy, you’re going to come back quite a ways,” Campbell said. “Now, you’re seeing players getting free and pulling away (in the open ice).”

In the first season after the lockout he set career-highs for games played (79), goals (12), assists (32) and points (44). He also scored five power play goals and five game-winners, but was a minus-14.

Brian Campbell scored 42 points last season and earned a spot on the Eastern
Conference All-Star team in Dallas, TX.

He reversed that rating by 42, finishing a plus-28 last season, although the Sabres did lead the League with 298 goals. Campbell had only six of them, but with his career-high 42 assists meant he finished with a career high 48 points.

In fact, in 167 games over parts of five seasons before the lockout Campbell had just nine goals and 32 assists. In 171 games since, he has 19 goals and 84 assists.

“(Sabres general manger) Darcy Regier will attest that when he played junior he was all offense and had a lot of learning to do defensively,” Patrick said. “He has just gotten more mature, more confident, better defensively and better at reading plays. If you throw that into how the game is more suited now to him, it makes him more of a higher echelon player.”

It helps, of course, that Campbell “is as good of a momentum skater as there is in the League,” Patrick said. He may not be the fastest from blue line to blue line, “but as a guy who can be skating backward with the puck, pivot and go forward he carries that momentum incredibly. To wind up and go behind the net, he just comes out flying.”

Kilrea said he was immediately drawn to Campbell’s speed, especially when he was carrying the puck.

“If you had a race between Brian and someone without the puck, there is a chance the other guy will win,” Kilrea said. “You put a puck on his stick and he doesn’t lose a step. His game is suited so much for carrying the puck, and moving the puck.

“Most times guys will slow down and take a look at the puck,” Kilrea added. “He’s got that great feel. He feels it on his stick and he’s always looking ahead. He doesn’t have to look up, and look down, and look up again. His head is always up."

And his game is only getting better.

So, for someone who is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, there’s no reason to go home now.

“He’s the old diamond in the rough,” Kilrea said.


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