Why Maple Leafs goalie Jack Campbell injects real heart into NHL’s All-Star glitz

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell (36). (Arnold J. Ward/AP)

LAS VEGAS – Jason Spezza was right beside Jack Campbell when the goaltender received some good news that would only further brighten a Canada-based hockey player’s midwinter’s day off in sunny Arizona.

A dozen years after being drafted into the league, and a zillion dozen self-effacing thoughts later, Campbell had just learned he’d been named to his first NHL All-Star Game.

Vegas, baby.

“I was extremely proud and happy for him,” gushed Spezza. He and Campbell were returning from a workout when goalie coach Steve Briere buzzed up in a golf cart to break the news. “I think I might’ve been happier than he was.”

As Spezza’s own All-Star experiences skate farther in the rear-view, the father of four has no issue soaking in the joys and accomplishments of those younger.

If Campbell is loath to pat himself on the back for a job well done, the wisest Maple Leaf will lead the chorus of teammates willing to do it for him.

Spezza’s bond with The Most Polite Goaltender on Earth reaches back to shared time in Dallas, where Campbell was drafted fast but developed slow, where Spezza was forced into the uneasy transition from top-line stunner to bottom-six role player.

Wearing his hockey nerd status like a boy scout badge, Spezza has always been that guy to hang around the ice after Coach whistles practice dead.

Then, as now, Campbell would be right there with him, happy to stand in and absorb Spezza’s extra target practice. He’d be thrilled to dive into conversations about how to approach the game they love, even when it doesn’t always love them back.

More than the Soupy smiles and stick-taps Leafs Nation has grown familiar with over pandemic hockey, Spezza noticed a burning drive inside the goalie, a relentless desire to sharpen his technique and his mind.

Spezza has had a front-row seat to Campbell’s maturity from big-league maybe to dependable backup to an athlete willing to skip a summer stateside and, instead, remain in Toronto to dig in with the Leafs trainers and coaches for sessions leading up to camp.

Already fond of that exuberant draftee eager to get his break with the Stars, Spezza now sees something steadier when he glances crease-ward: “A game-changer for us every night.”

“I'm so proud of Soup,” he went on. “Just a great kid that has really worked hard, and he's got a long time ahead of him now. Goalies can play for a long time, and I think he's just finding his stride.”

The beautiful thing for all involved (save, perhaps, Leafs capologist Brandon Pridham) is the timing.

Campbell’s best season has arrived at a most critical juncture for both himself (he’s an impending UFA, if you hadn’t heard) and the logo covering his chest protector (there’s impatience for the Leafs to win a playoff round, if you hadn’t heard).

Only Vegas’s Mark Stone, 29, and Minnesota’s Cam Talbot, 34, will be older first-time All-Stars this weekend. And an excited Campbell, naturally, is quick to deflect credit to the boys in front of him and all those less-visible coaches and supporters chipping in on his journey.

“It's a big moment for my family... an incredible honour,” Campbell said.

He’s excited to reunite with ol’ pal Dylan Larkin and giddy to share an Atlantic Division dressing room with Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, the consensus best active goalie on the planet. More so, the achievement triggers Campbell to think of how his parents and his sister lifted his spirits through this roller coaster pro career.

“I’ve always had the belief,” Campbell said. “It’s nice to get a little bit of the results.”

What if Campbell could travel back in time, find that kid lugging pads to some small barn in Port Huron, Michigan? What would he tell his younger self?

"Dream big and work even harder. Anything can happen."

It was not lost on Mitch Marner how imperative it was for the Leafs to deliver a win for the previously slumping Campbell Tuesday in New Jersey. Which they did in resounding fashion, 7-1.

“It was great for him. And now he gets to go and enjoy that All-Star Game, which he’s deserved for the full year he's been here,” Marner said. There’s a tinge of bite to the winger’s words, as if shooting down doubters before they dare pipe up. “He’s the reason why our team’s winning.”

When Marner was stuck in quarantine, he gained fresh appreciation for Campbell’s work through the television set. He’d fire the netminder post-game text messages amplifying his highlight-reel saves.

“Jack's been our rock. He really has. He’s made a lot of unbelievable saves,” Marner said. “Sometimes we do get a little loose and he’s got to make a lot of big saves. That Colorado game – a couple of saves he made there were spectacular and kinda jaw-dropping for you to watch at home.

“He’s one of the best people in hockey and probably the world. So deserving of it. It's great to see he got the recognition he deserves. It’s kind of a sad thing about the Olympics not happening — he probably deserved a spot to be on that (Team USA) roster as well. But it's great to see him get his chance here, and he deserves it. He's been a hell of a goalie in this league. And it's now great to see him excel in the spot he’s in.”

Survey the rest of Toronto’s players — a handful of whom could have their own case for All-Star inclusion this winter — and all you’ll hear is an outpouring of joy and respect for Campbell’s new status. All(-Star) of the feels.

T.J. Brodie has picked up Campbell’s elevated “determination” and “confidence.”

John Tavares uses the word “likable,” then instantly upgrades that to “lovable,” marveling how the goalie can balance a logical attention to detail to his craft with an emotional lift to those around him.

Sheldon Keefe has planted himself in Campbell’s corner here, trusting the big games to the affable late-bloomer over Frederik Andersen and now Petr Mrazek.

“It’s been tremendous to see it happening before your eyes every day,” Keefe said. “As you know, he’s a pretty humble guy and likes to pass around the credit, but it's terrific that he's going and he’s getting the recognition.”

All-Star regular and born winner Auston Matthews has waited for Ubers longer than accolades. In Campbell, he sees not only a friend to ball around Sin City with, but an example for sport and beyond.

“I think it's a great story. It's something that people can look at and learn from. Just a lot of adversity that he's been through. No one route is the same to get to the same place,” Matthews said. “His just took a little bit longer, and it was a bit of a winding road. But he’s here now.

“I think that's just kind of life sometimes. Lots of bumps and bruises. But I think it just speaks to the mental fortitude that he has and the commitment and passion to be the best version of himself that he can be. And I can't honestly find more words to describe Jack. Unbelievable teammate. Unbelievable guy."

Campbell’s All-Star ticket is more than a heart-warming yarn. It’s a refreshing jolt of truth buried inside an event that, some argue, has lost its lustre.

Absolutely, the NHL’s All-Star weekend is about letting the kids gorge on fun, low-stakes broadcast candy and shoving cocktails in sponsors’ mitts and luring Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox’s followers to pay attention to something hockey on their smartphones.

But it can be a meaningful reward for a job well done, too.

Campbell’s presence proves that.

Like Spezza, Jake Muzzin knows Campbell from a hockey city where he was no star. Just another battler in the shadows.

The blunt defenceman is asked, when he first met Campbell back in L.A., if he ever saw star potential in Campbell.

“There’s always potential,” Muzzin blurted. “It’s whether they choose to push themselves to take it to the next level.

“When guys do, this is some of what you get to see.”

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