There are three things that Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans should have learned about Jack Campbell so far this season.
First, he’s a good goalie. He’s unbeaten this season and on Wednesday night set a franchise record for consecutive wins for a goalie with 10. Given that the Maple Leafs’ franchise has been in existence since 1917, that’s amazing.
Second, Campbell’s teammates simply love him. This isn’t the first time I’ve noted this fact in a post because it just keeps coming up over and over again. It’s obvious when you see the congratulatory line of celebrators at the end of a game where Campbell has goal-tended his team to a win. Player after player – usually 21 of them (everyone dressed) – come by one-by-one to say congratulations with a hug or a pat on the shoulder.
Third, Campbell is an upbeat guy. He’s always positive – and I mean, always! He engages his teammates when the play’s whistled down. He “winks” at his teammates. He pats them on the pads with his stick to say thanks for specific plays or simply to encourage them. He’s just always engaging.
Maple Leafs’ Fans Learned Something New in Wednesday’s Postgame
But, a fourth thing came up in a Sportsnet interview after the game last on Wednesday night. Campbell broke down when questioned about his positive relationships and the support he’s drawn from his teammates. Suddenly, we all got a chance to see a bit more about what makes this young man tick.
He’s desperate to do well. He doesn’t want his play to let anyone down. But more than that, he’s had a tough time during his career. He went from a first-round draft choice to a washed up 20-year-old has been and a “lost soul” with the Dallas Stars. Only when he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings did he begin to resurrect his career.
Now, just over a year later since he’s come to the Maple Leafs, he’s started to grow into the goalie he’s hoped to become. And he doesn’t take that remarkable journey for granted.
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In this post, I want to trace the history of Jack Campbell so that Maple Leafs’ fans might learn more about the team’s current starting goalie.
A Short, Miserable Drop from the Top to the Very Bottom
A really nice CBC article written in February 2020 and updated on April 7 outlines Campbell’s difficult journey from being a first-round (11th overall) draft choice by the Stars in 2010. When Campbell was drafted, he was supposed to be the next great American goalie – a goalie like Jonathan Quick or Ryan Miller. He’d been the goalie who helped lead the U.S. to gold at the 2010 world junior hockey championship, and he was hot.
However, his game quickly started to slide downhill and then simply fell apart. He made one start for the Stars in 2013-14 where he gave up six goals and was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in June 2016.
Three years after his NHL debut, he made a relief appearance for the Kings and played a period without giving up a goal. But the three seasons between his first disastrous NHL start and his second successful appearance were hell for the young goalie. He wasn’t, as the CBC article noted, “in a good place.”
During those three seasons, Campbell dropped from the NHL to the AHL and eventually to the ECHL. He was miserable personally and played miserably in goal. He was consumed by his hockey failures, sick of bouncing around between the AHL and the third-tier ECHL, and saw “no light at the end of a tunnel that seemed to be leading nowhere.”
As Campbell said about himself, “It just wasn’t fun anymore. It really took a toll on my mental state.” He ended by saying, “I felt like I was (alone) on an island.”
The Young Goalie’s Career Was Saved by the Kings’ Dusty Imoo
Currently Dusty Imoo is the goalie coach with Kulun Red Star of Russia’s KHL, but then he was the Kings’ Head of Goaltending Development. After being traded to the Kings, Campbell met Imoo. Imoo became the lifeline Campbell needed.
In a phone interview last February, Imoo spoke about his experience with Campbell. When Imoo first met Campbell, “He was a lost soul. He was really beaten down and a lot of it was self-abuse. He had beaten himself up. He put so much pressure on himself early and quickly.”
Imoo added, “Any failure, he (Campbell) took it very personally … he felt he was a failure as a person.”
At the time, Imoo worked with the AHL’s Ontario Reign (this Ontario is in California about 60 km east of Los Angeles) as their goalie coach. Working with Campbell was a unique challenge. As Imoo shared, “He had no idea who he was.” So, “We wanted to build from scratch and redefine him.”
Imoo Worked with Campbell Both Physically and (Mostly) Mentally
During an interview last February, Campbell admitted that at this time in his career, he was playing so badly he “didn’t even know really how to stand in the net anymore.”
Imoo worked on Campbell’s technique, but mostly on his mental attitude. He asked Campbell to remember his life when hockey was fun for him. Specifically, Imoo asked, “When you were your best what was it like? What was it like when you felt good about yourself?”
Campbell shared that he “was an athletic goalie and used his reflexes.”
That’s where the two started Campbell’s rebuild. Imoo repeatedly told Campbell “You gotta learn to love yourself first before you can love all the other crap – the game. You’ve got to be happy with yourself as a person.”
After the two men got to know each other better, Campbell revealed to Imoo that his downhill slide began when he didn’t make the Stars’ roster as an 18-year-old. It shook him. “I’d always accomplished everything, at that point, that I wanted. It was tough, it was frustrating. It went downhill from there.”
Campbell Pushed Himself to Exhaustion
Because he wanted to succeed so badly, Campbell pushed himself in drills to the point of passing out. Imoo noted, “It was insane. Soupy (Campbell’s nickname) would go so hard he would stop breathing … we needed to harness it (Campbell’s energy) the right way.”
Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin seconds Imoo’s report. He’s called Campbell “the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen in hockey.” Muzzin added, “We’re not making this up. This is a real thing.”
Muzzin also admits that Campbell can fall back into his old habits of self-doubt; however, Muzzin notes that it’s a lot better than before. He notes about the record-setting goalie, “He puts a lot of pressure on himself. He hates letting the team down or himself down … but a lot the time, he’s not.”
Things Began to Go Better for Campbell in Ontario (California)
Things changed for the better during Campbell’s time with the Reign. Finally, in 2018-19, Campbell became the Kings backup and signed a two-year, $3.3-million contract extension through 2022.
Kings’ goalie coach Bill Ranford continued the work with Campbell. Campbell noted that “Dusty (Imoo) was a mentor [and] there every second for me. Bill gave me my space and allowed me to grow. He let me figure things out; but, when it was time to work, he always had great points.”
Campbell began to enjoy the game again. His game improved. The happy, generous-with-his-praise young goalie who was traded to the Maple Leafs last season with Kyle Clifford had re-emerged.
During his February 2020 phone interview, Imoo said that Campbell’s move to Toronto “would not have been a good situation five years ago. Hopefully the fans embrace him. I know it’s a tough market, but I think they’re gonna be happy with what they got.”
Now, a year and a season later, it’s pretty obvious Maple Leafs fans are just that – happy with what they got.
Campbell and Imoo still talk with each other a few times a month, although that’s tougher now because Imoo coaches in the KHL. Campbell’s relationship with Imoo “means the world to me.”
As Campbell says, Imoo “took me from having no self-esteem off the ice or on the ice to just chilling out completely and believing in myself again.”
Re-watching Wednesday’s Postgame Video
So, as I re-watch the post-game video, it’s easy to understand why Campbell reacted so emotionally to an innocent-enough question about what it means to have his teammates speak so highly of him. Considering Campbell’s difficult journey from lost soul to Maple Leafs’ record-holder, it’s understandable why memories of his last seven years of struggle flooded his answers.
It’s been a long, difficult, and soul-threatening journey for Campbell to get to this point in his career. He recalls that journey in that interview. He thanks his LA teammates and coaches for helping him “get the ball rolling.” He “thanks the Lord everyday” for bringing him to Toronto. Finally, he admits that all he and his team are trying to do is to “have fun and keep winning.”
For a young goalie who forgot how to stand in the net to being an Original Six franchise record-holder, that’s a long trip.
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act). He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf