Leafs’ Campbell endearing himself to team with heart-on-sleeve approach

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston talk about the Maple Leafs pulling out the OT win against the Arizona Coyotes.

TORONTO – It’s impossible for Jack Campbell to recall the words his parents said Wednesday night when he called to inform mom and dad he’d been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team just a three-hour drive from their home in Port Huron, Mich. A team with a shot and some run support.

Damned if the goaltender can remember what he said to Debbi and Jack Sr. that night either.

“It was like one of those moments, you kinda go dark for a second ’cause it’s just special,” Campbell said. “I just remember how excited they were.

“It was crazy. I’ll never forget that moment.”

Funny how the biggies in life work.

The details blur, but the feelings attached remain crystal.

National Hockey League goaltenders are supposed to follow two golden rules. One: Don’t get nervous. Two: If you do get nervous, don’t admit it.

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So, after Campbell won his first game as a Maple Leaf on Friday night, an overtime nail-biter with mom and dad part of the joyous sold-out barn, the goalie (and closeted rom-com fan) endeared himself with his honesty and sensitivity.

“I was just really excited, and I think when you care a lot, you get a little nervous,” Campbell said.

During a whirlwind six days, the new backup in town has furthered endeared with his results, battling through three consecutive overtimes and surfacing with five of six valuable standings points in a playoff race that promises a photo finish.

Fans and teammates alike have warmed quickly to Campbell’s heart-on-sleeve, smile-on-face approach, and he was awarded the dressing room’s Raptors game ball for his .946 effort Tuesday, after waking up thinking he’d be backing up.

“I just like the confidence that he has in himself and the confidence he brings to our team, and he’s excited for every opportunity that comes about — and it doesn’t matter how it comes about. He’s ready for it, whether it’s coming in and playing right away in essentially his first day with us or playing on back-to-back nights or playing today when maybe he wasn’t necessarily coming to the arena thinking that he would be starting,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“He’s a guy that does find his way to be comfortable because he’s very social, is outgoing and has a great attitude.”

Leafs Nation, still coming back for more after 53 years of bummers, has its tendencies to ride too high and hate too fast.

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So, although his initials are J.C., we’re not crowing Jack Campbell this season’s saviour quite yet.

But the scrappy, puck-moving goalie has delivered in a small, adrenalin-fueled sample size in his comfy L.A. Kings gear repainted blue and white.

In addition to Tuesday’s 35-save gem in a 3-2 overtime win over the Arizona Coyotes, Campbell’s 2-0-1 splash has permitted starter Frederik Andersen the cushion of time to fully recover from the neck injury he suffered on Feb. 3, and has immediately instilled the skaters in front of him with a rush of confidence that they have a good chance of winning even without No. 31 patrolling the paint.

“This is pretty fun. I’m just enjoying it,” Campbell said. “I’ve kinda been through it all in my career — two years that were pretty rocky (in Dallas) but then some really good ones the last four years.

“I just feel like every moment I’ve had is preparing me for this.”

You may have heard that since Andersen arrived in Toronto, he has been responsible for backstopping 80 per cent of the Leafs’ standings points, contributing a greater share than any other goalie in the NHL.

With Soupy’s warming potential—and a cap-gentle contract that runs through 2021-22—there is real hope that, just maybe, not everything has to live and die with Andersen’s health or hot streaks.

“He’s not just a backup,” Kyle Clifford said of Campbell, who came parcelled in the trade. “There’s a lot of potential there.”

Zach Hyman wants to know if you’ve met Campbell yet because he’s “just a really, really friendly guy.”

Alexander Kerfoot beamed when he said, Campbell’s “energy is awesome.”

Like Andersen, Campbell has taken to gliding out from his crease and standing on the blue line alongside the boys for “O Canada” and frequently punctuates his flashy glove saves with butt-taps to his defenders.

“They always tell me, ‘Good job,’ so it’s kind of like (me saying) ‘Good job.’ It kind of makes you interact with your teammates a little more. Being in the net, you’re not on the bench so you can’t really chat it up with the boys,” Campbell explained.

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Drew Doughty, former Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford (who helped with his technique), former Ontario Reign goalie coach Dusty Imoo (who helped with his outlook), Clifford… they all have tales of Campbell’s first-to-the-rink attendance, his long hours in the gym and on the ice, and his tendency to blame himself for every puck that slips through.

“We’re not making this up. This is a real thing. He’s got a work ethic in him that runs very high. He competes on every puck out there in practice like it’s a Game 7 puck. So it’s gotten him to this level. It’s made him a better goalie,” said Jake Muzzin, an ex-King reunited.

That one standings point the Leafs squandered in Montreal on Saturday? Campbell immediately assumed blame for the entire group.

“Yeah, and he played a hell of a game,” said Muzzin, shaking his head. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be the best he can be, and he hates to let the team down, let himself down. But a lot of times he’s not. He just puts that on himself.

“That’s kind of guy we have here. So, we’re lucky to have him.”

Campbell shrugs: “I mean, nothing ever really changes with me: I expect myself to be as almost as perfect as I can.”

This extraordinary inner drive is a quality the son inherited from Jack Sr., who owns an electrical distribution company in Port Huron. (“He grinds,” Junior assured.)

The Kings were road-tripping in New York last week when Campbell’s head was spun with news he’d been dealt. He had one pair of pants, a set of gym shorts and no extra boxers.

There’d be no time to fly home from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach. It was straight to Toronto and into the fire, the race, the shopping mall.

“It’s pretty emotional,” Campbell said.

“The excitement level of being a Maple Leaf — not that this takes away from L.A. — but the excitement was so great that you kinda move on right away.”


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