Aidan Campbell wasn’t supposed to return this season. At least it didn’t look that way at the start. Then suddenly on Saturday night at Erie Insurance Arena against the Guelph Storm, there he was leading the Otters to the ice in a game they had to have.
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Campbell was ready to assume the role of number-one goalie for the Otters this season. But then came the news of his lower-body injury. The initial thought was the surgery would knock him out for the season. The Otters were prepared to move forward with 17 year-old Nolan Lalonde as their everyday starter. They then brought on Marshall Nicholls to serve as the backup.
Campbell’s surgery was thought to be a devastating blow to the Otters considering he was going to be depended on to win many games while helping the team take the next step. To the team’s credit, through many ups and downs including the firing of head coach Chris Hartsburg, they were able to stay within reach of the playoff race.
Although the Otters split their two games over the weekend, one thing was abundantly clear. Campbell’s return gave his team a huge jolt as they fight for the playoffs.
Campbell’s Hard Work to Return
This moment isn’t possible without the hard work put in by Campbell to be ready for this opportunity. His head coach B.J. Adams acknowledged as much after their 4-1 win on Saturday against the Storm.
“The way he played was great,” Adams said. “I’m just happy for him to get back. He’s worked his tail off since his injury and the surgery to get back to this point. At one point we didn’t think he was going to play all season at all. I thought when he first had the surgery he was going to be done.”
“Credit to him for really working in rehab and following the protocol. I couldn’t be happier for the way he played tonight.”
As you might expect, Campbell had some nerves coming in but was quickly able to settle into the game and play the way he knows how to.
“I was a little nervous coming out of warmups and the first two minutes of the first period,” Campbell said. “You see your first shot. I’m in the locker room with the guys and they’re like ‘aw man don’t let the first one in.’ I’m like yeah that’s what you wanna say. I’m glad I got that first one in and (was good) from there on out.”
Campbell admitted to having a doctor in New York help him through this. Then he had physical therapy done in Pittsburgh. The original timetable set according to Campbell was 6-9 months. But then he said that the doctors told him if he worked hard enough, he could conceivably be back in five months.
Campbell had no use of his legs and hips for the first month post surgery. Then through physical therapy, he started the process of regaining his strength and flexibility. It took him just four months to rejoin his teammates at practice. After a month of preparation, he was ready to play.
Campbell Motivating His Teammates
If there was an obvious impact to Campbell’s return, it was on his teammates. The Otters looked like a team in control with him in net keeping things calm. Did he think he’d provide a jolt for them?
“I hope a lot. A lot of them were very energized coming in. They were really happy for me getting back out to where I was. They’re a great group of guys. (They’re) like family. I really hope we keep making the mark we’re making.”
Team captain Daniel D’Amato knew right away that Campbell’s return was going to have a positive effect on the team as a whole.
“He just looks so calm and nonchalant in net. But it’s a testament to how much work he’s put in to getting here,” D’Amato said of Campbell. “Everyone wrote him off at the start of the year saying he wouldn’t come back. He’s worked so hard. He’s grinded all year just to have that moment so he definitely deserves it.”
The Road Ahead
The Otters went 1-1 over the weekend as they lost Sunday to Niagara 3-1. Campbell started that game also and allowed just two goals. His teammates could only muster one goal on 40 shots against Joseph Costanzo.
From Campbell’s perspective, that’s a good sign he was able to play two games in less than 24 hours. He says he feels really good coming out of the games. Given the injury to Lalonde, the team will look to Campbell down the stretch.
The Otters have nine games left this season with eight of them coming at home thanks to a lot of make up games. They trail Sarnia by three as the new week begins. The Sting also have nine games left.
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The Otters next four games could go a long way in deciding if the playoffs are in the cards for them. They host Hamilton on Friday. They then host a pair against the Kitchener Rangers on Saturday and Sunday. They trail the Rangers by six starting the week. Then they host Sarnia after that the following Thursday.
If the Otters hope to overtake the eighth spot in the West, they have to stop playing east and west. They also have to stop being too cute according to Adams. That was the difference on Sunday in their loss to Niagara. Despite 40 shots, there wasn’t enough quality looks.
The playoff race is up for grabs at the bottom of the west. If the Otters take care of business at home, they have a shot. Otherwise it will be another season in Erie with no playoffs.
Campbell worked his way back to be ready for this position. His teammates want to make the playoffs to help payoff the work Campbell put in. The opportunity is there. It’s now up to them to make it happen on home ice.
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I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.