Campbell’s joy in record night for Leafs a reminder of human side of game

TORONTO — Jack Campbell has emerged from unlikely circumstances to keep the Toronto Maple Leafs humming along amid a campaign that might otherwise have been swallowed whole by an injury to his goaltending partner.

And in establishing a new franchise record for consecutive wins on Wednesday night, Campbell went one further: He managed to show us the kind of real genuine emotion this sanitized pandemic season has so sorely been missing.

Let me be clear.

Through the fault of no one — least of all the players and team staff being subjected to restrictive safety protocols every day, or the league personnel now into their 13th month of finding solutions to overwhelmingly large problems — this simply hasn’t felt the same. Games played entirely or mostly without fans. Stories and anecdotes and thoughts all filtered through perfunctory Zoom media availabilities that are wearing on everyone involved.

Then you had Campbell pull on a headset for a post-game interview with my Sportsnet colleague Shawn McKenzie and remind us all why we love these games. It’s the human side of the athletes and the superhuman things they’re capable of doing on the field of play.

In Campbell’s case, it’s the twisting 11-year road from being a highly touted draft pick who failed to meet expectations, and then ending up here winning 10 straight starts for the Maple Leafs while Frederik Andersen is sidelined indefinitely.

And really it’s about the fact the 29-year-old has held on to this pure genuine way of being despite every challenge thrown his way. That’s why you had Auston Matthews telling Campbell how “f—ing proud of him” he was during a poignant exchange on the ice after Wednesday’s 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. And Mitch Marner joyfully counting off the 10 straight wins that earned Campbell an entry in the Leafs record book.

The goaltender sighed deeply and got emotional when McKenzie asked him to rewatch the celebration with teammates on the Scotiabank Arena scoreboard during their post-game interview.

“It’s pretty awesome. I’m lost for words right now,” Campbell replied. “It’s been a long journey and just to have their support, every single guy, it’s crazy. It’s a dream come true, something I worked very hard for.

“There’s not a day I don’t thank the lord for putting me here in Toronto with these amazing guys. And I don’t want to forget my L.A. teammates and coaches there because they got the ball rolling for me in the NHL and without them I wouldn’t be here.”

Here the Leafs are in a season with Stanley Cup aspirations and the NHL’s third-best points percentage just days before the trade deadline. And a former 11th overall draft pick who found himself in the ECHL five years ago is shouldering their hopes in goal while Andersen deals with an injury that’s kept him off the ice for a concerning length of time.

Oh, and that goaltender has won all 10 starts he’s managed to make while missing two extended stretches with a left leg injury of his own and he’s posted a .944 save percentage in the process.

Against Montreal on Wednesday, he stopped 17 shots during a lopsided second period, and withstood a late push for the tying goal. He finished with another 32 saves and helped the Leafs improve to 8-0-1 since Andersen went down last month. He was properly feted by the fellas, too.

“Oh, I mean, I’m just so happy for him,” said Matthews. “He’s such an amazing person and he brings a lot of joy into everybody’s lives in the locker room. I just couldn’t be happier for him. He played unbelievable again tonight, he’s been unbelievable all season.

“He’s just such a special person and, like I said, we’re all just so happy for him.”

Campbell supplanted John Ross Roach (1925), Jacques Plante (1970-71) and Felix Potvin (1993-94), who all had nine-game winning streaks for the Leafs. And he received some kind of recognition behind closed doors in the dressing room.

“I think it’s important to give Jack his moment here,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “He’s been through a lot and worked extremely hard to put himself in the position to play like this and get these results.”

There is so much going on beneath the surface of this challenging campaign in 31 dressing rooms across the continent. From the mental strain of COVID-19 protocols to the physical toll of a compacted schedule to the loneliness some of these guys feel in a world where we’re all staying more distant than ever before.

On this day the Leafs played without William Nylander, who was sent into quarantine after coming into contact with someone who possibly contracted the virus. That happened on Tuesday night after the team returned from an eight-day road trip and didn’t involve any breach of NHL protocol, according to Keefe.

“Credit to Will for how he handled it, in terms of being up front and letting us know there was a potential situation (after Wednesday’s morning skate),” Keefe added.

This Leafs season is being documented behind the scenes by Amazon Prime cameras and the resulting series should be compelling. But in real-time it’s harder than ever to glean what’s really going on.

That’s why Wednesday’s win stood out among the 26 the Leafs have managed so far. It was a close, physical, hard-fought game against a team Toronto will see five more times before the end of the regular season and potentially again in the playoffs. And it marked a special achievement for a player the fanbase and his teammates are falling for.

Even in an empty building, you could feel something different in the air.

“A moment I’ll never forget,” said Campbell.