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Hockey Ties Unite Mahtomedi's Campbell Family

Jeff Campbell's love of game transcended generations

by Devin Lowe /

Stubborn. Determined. Relentlessly passionate about the game of hockey.

That's how Joe Campbell remembers his brother, Jeff. They grew up together in the 1970s in the sleepy, quiet town of Willernie, Minnesota, an enclave inside Mahtomedi. When they were kids, they'd build things with their older brother, Jack Jr., cars made of wood scraps and whatever else they could find around the house.

In the winter, they'd make the two-block walk to the ice rink near their house, skates on their backs and snow in their eyes.

Video: Campbell pays tribute to uncle

"We'd always go up there and play hockey," Joe said. "This was the old days where you could go away [for a few hours]. You didn't have a cell phone, your parents knew where you were at."

The brothers would play shinny for hours at a time, running home only to fill their rumbling bellies. They all loved hockey, but not quite like Jeff.

At school, Jeff found out about Mahtomedi Youth Hockey and came home intent on getting his mom, Jean, to sign him up. He badgered her for a week straight, persistent enough that she finally picked up the phone and called for more information.

Joe remembers standing in the living room with Jeff and their mother that day. As Jeff eagerly awaited her verdict, Joe chimed in: He wanted to play hockey, too.

They enrolled in youth hockey together when Joe was in third grade and Jeff in second. Jack joined them a year later. It wasn't long before Jeff chose his position.

"He wanted to win, and he figured the best way to [do it] was to stop all the pucks," Joe said. Goaltender it was.

In high school, Joe and Jeff played on the same team for two years, the same Mahtomedi block "M" on the front of their jerseys and the number 1 on the back of Jeff's. When he graduated in 1991, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was stationed at Twentynine Palms in southern California for training.

He was happy, but he missed hockey. He did some research into where he could play, and when he found a team, he could hardly wait to travel back home to Willernie to pick up his equipment.

It all coincided perfectly with Joe's arrival in California with a few friends for the 1994 Rose Bowl featuring his Wisconsin Badgers and the UCLA Bruins. After celebrating the Badgers' win, Joe and Jeff headed northbound toward Minnesota. On Jan. 3, 1994, around 3 a.m., the car they were riding in spun out on a cloverleaf interchange.

In the back seat, Joe rolled around a bit, startled from sleep. He was fine.

Jeff, in the front, was not.

The After

The accident left Jeff in a comatose, non-communicative state.

"For a long time, they kept on saying, 'He's gonna wake up. He's gonna wake up,'" said Rochelle Campbell, Joe's wife, his high school sweetheart and Jeff's childhood friend. "They had that hope, or at least his mother did, for probably about two years."

But Jeff never did wake up, at least not fully. His family made the tough decision to place him in a long-term care facility.

Life went on, if differently, after Jeff's injury. Joe and Rochelle had kids, Johna, Josh, Lois and Lorraine, and visited Jeff whenever they could.

And in 2000, professional hockey returned to Minnesota in the form of the Minnesota Wild.

"When Minnesota came back with hockey, it was like, 'Yes, this is perfect. This is what the Campbells do. They go watch hockey,'" Rochelle said.

Joe saw it as his chance to get Jeff out and about. The family got season tickets behind the Wild goaltender in the single-attack end and took him to nearly every home game in the seven seasons they had seats.

Even though Jeff couldn't communicate, he sometimes tracked the puck with his eyes.

Josh Campbell's memories of his uncle are fuzzy at best, but he can pinpoint a moment where he was rolled into a Wild game in his uncle's wheelchair with him. He and his sister Lois took turns sitting in Jeff's lap during games, and they huddled around the TV at their home to watch games with him when the team was away.

When Josh was 4, he began playing hockey, sometimes at the same outdoor rink his father and uncle skated at when they were kids. His parents barely raised an eyebrow when he decided he wanted to be a goalie, just like Uncle Jeff.

"I was always the guy that wanted to try everything," Josh said. "It was something I had a [knack] for. Something drew me to that position. It's something I love and something I'm glad I'm a part of.

"Without Jeff, my family would've never started playing hockey."

Jeff lived with Joe and the family for the last two years of his life. On April 24, 2007, Jeff passed away at the age of 35.

After Jeff died, the Wild organization, which grew to know and love Jeff during his time as a season ticket holder, sent its condolences to the Campbells in the form of a jersey that still hangs in their home. It has Jeff's nameplate and the number 1 on the back.

Honoring Jeff

Josh stuck with the goaltender position and made his way through the Mahtomedi youth system, just like Jeff. When it came time to pick sweater numbers in high school, he wanted to wear Jeff's number 1, but Mahtomedi's jerseys ran from number 2 to 35.

So Josh found different ways to honor his uncle. When he lettered in lacrosse his freshman year, he asked his grandparents, Jack and Jean, if he could use his uncle's letter jacket. Instead of replacing Jeff's name with his own on the worn leather, he kept it, making a shadowbox with Jeff's old letters and memorabilia for his grandma that she displays in her home.

"He comes down here one morning [in the jacket] and it says 'Jeff,'" Rochelle said. "And of course, I have tears in my eyes."

Jeff also inspired the design of Josh's helmet. In between the 3 and 5 of 35, Josh's number, he placed the shadow of a number 1 for Jeff. 

When Josh found out that Mahtomedi would be ordering special jerseys for Hockey Day Minnesota, he texted the team's captain and his coach to ask permission to order and wear the number 1 jersey for the team's game against Mahtomedi.

There was only one answer his coach could give: of course.

"To wear something for a person that special to me, wear the same number as him to honor him, it [means] a lot to me," Josh said.

The jersey tribute is a surprise for Jack and Jean, who don't know what Josh has in store for them. They're in their late 70s and might not be able to make it to Stillwater, but they'll be watching, just like they watched countless games where Jeff, clad in number 1, tended net.

Leaving a Legacy

The Campbells still feel Jeff's legacy every day. It's in his nieces' and nephew's love of hockey, the long days in chilly rinks, the celebratory feel of watching the Wild play at Xcel Energy Center.

Lois, who is 14, plays hockey just like Jeff and her brother. Lorraine, 8, wants to someday play goalie.

"It's a great family tradition that he brought on," Rochelle said. "It brings our family together."

Joe wishes he could thank Jeff for inspiring their love for the game.

"It's been a great experience for us," Joe said. "We've been able to bond over things we'd never have done without hockey."

Josh's tribute will be the closest they get to thanking Jeff for giving them the love of the game. And on the ice in the open air, on a day meant to celebrate hockey, it would've been exactly what Jeff would've wanted.

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