Commentary

Being Brian Campbell

Updated: March 17, 2012, 3:57 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

SUNRISE, Fla. -- An NHL player's life is a series of moments repeated over and over.

Those moments are the punctuation marks in the narrative of their season. The sentences that tell the story of their careers.

On this morning, Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell begins his narrative at his home in a residential golf complex north of Sunrise, where the Panthers play their home games, and a short drive from the team's practice facility in Coral Springs.

His fiancée, Lauren, makes him eggs and toast, as she always does.

Campbell's father, a retired school principal, and mother, who still works in a local bank, are visiting from the family's home in Strathroy, Ontario, their second visit of the season.

Two cars are in the driveway, one still bearing Illinois license plates, a reminder that Campbell is relatively new to this sunny clime and to the Panthers, a team desperate to establish an identity and reward its long-suffering fans with more than the promise of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Dressed casually in a T-shirt with a Detroit Tigers baseball cap perched backward on his head, Campbell heads out for his office at the BankAtlantic Center at about 8:30 in the morning.

Heading south on the Sawgrass Expressway, there is more than a little feeling of disconnect between the game and this community on the edge of the Everglades in southwestern Broward County.

But Campbell feels none of that. In fact, he has embraced his move to the South after agreeing to waive his no-trade clause to reunite with former Chicago GM Dale Tallon in the hopes the two might somehow find the same magic they found with a woeful Blackhawks club that rose from its own ashes to win a Stanley Cup in 2010.

"I've actually kind of enjoyed it," Campbell said as he maneuvered through traffic. "It's kind of nice to just go to the rink and work hard, and then be able to get away from the game and recharge.

"I'm having fun playing hockey again."

Fun, maybe, as long as you like a little dose of urgency thrown in for good measure. These are nerve-wracking times for many NHL teams, although none have endured the playoff drought that the Panthers carry around like a millstone from night to night.

The Cats have not qualified for the postseason since 2000. In 1996, they made an unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup finals, but have not won a playoff round in any other season and have qualified for the postseason only three times since entering the league in 1993.

On this morning, they still hold the Southeast Division lead and that night will face a slumping Boston team that sits just four points ahead of the Panthers. But nothing is guaranteed, especially not for a team with so little playoff success and with Washington nipping at the Panthers' heels.

"I look at the standings every day," Campbell said. "Probably multiple times a night."


Campbell directs his car into the underground parking lot at BankAtlantic Center. As soon as Campbell disappears into the locker room, he will head into a meeting that about the power-play unit as well as some general 5-on-5 discussion. Specifically, the coaching staff will go over the Bruins' forechecking tendencies and how the Panthers hope to counter that breaking out of their zone.

Then Campbell will suit up for the morning skate, which he jokes that he hopes will last only about 20 minutes, depending on head coach Kevin Dineen's mood.

The morning skate is a relatively loose affair with lots of drills and stretching. At one point, working from the morning meeting, Dineen stands outside the blue line feeding pucks in to the defense. Each defenseman retrieves the puck and makes a pass to their partner or a forward on the half-wall. Over and over.

Afterward, Campbell showers and changes back into his street clothes quickly and heads home to visit briefly with his parents and have his traditional pregame meal of grilled chicken, brown rice and peas. Lauren jokes that she hasn't been adventurous enough to throw green beans into the mix.

"I don't want to throw it off," she said.

Campbell used to eat the old standby pasta before games but has gone another direction nutritionally, trying to embrace a gluten-free diet.

After some reading -- he just finished the autobiography of Apple founder Steve Jobs -- and a nap that usually lasts from an hour to 90 minutes, Campbell wakes up and builds his favorite pregame snack: peanut butter, fresh berries, yogurt and honey smashed together.

Lauren, a teacher with a master's degree in special education, makes a face.

"We don't eat the same snacks," she said.

But the snack gets Campbell prepared and he tells his family on the way out the door around 4 p.m. that he feels good and is ready for a good game.


There is something almost peaceful about a hockey rink in the hours before a game.

The hallways echo. There is a muted sound in the arena itself as attendants work on the shiny ice.

Veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski is the first to arrive in the team parking lot. He was one of the team's first bona fide stars back in the mid and late 1990s. He signed a four-year deal in the offseason, so there is a feeling of the circle of a long, distinguished career slowly being closed here.

[+] EnlargeBrian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski
Phil Ellsworth/NHLI/Getty ImagesBrian Campbell has meshed with teammate Ed Jovanovski since arriving in South Florida.

Campbell arrives moments later.

He is wearing a suit now, but he quickly changes into team shorts and sweatshirt and begins gathering sticks for his pregame taping ritual.

The dressing room is hushed, the jerseys and socks laid out by the training staff after the morning skate. This is a good time for Campbell and Jovanovski. Their routines have meshed since Campbell's arrival, both enjoying the quiet that an early arrival provides.

This has been Campbell's way since he was a kid. He recalls always getting to practice early in the hopes that the ice would be free beforehand so he could get on the ice faster.

"I just like to be here so I'm not rushed," Campbell said. "I see some guys get here later and they're running around trying to get everything done."

Often he and Jovanovski share a cab to the rink when they are on the road. Usually they sit and chat about the game and Jovanovski's children.

"He's got four kids, so there's always something going on," Campbell said.

Jovanovski was recently out of action for 14 games with a broken hand sustained in a fight, putting a void in Campbell's routine.

"Yeah, I didn't like it very much," Campbell admitted.

In Jovanovski's absence, Campbell tried with limited success to co-opt defensive partner Jason Garrison into coming early to keep him company. When Garrison arrives in the locker room some 20 minutes later, Campbell makes a point of noting his arrival time with a good-natured display of mock disgust.

Campbell tapes his sticks the same way he has since playing junior hockey. He first tapes a section of the toe that covers the rounded end of the blade, then tapes the rest from the heel on out to the toe.

He is particular, like many players, about the knob of the stick. He tapes a series of thin ribs down a few inches from the top of the stick's shaft and then covers those ribs with softer red tape that is almost like gauze.

That tape gives the handle a nice squishy feeling and Campbell admits he does not like it if his teammates mess with his freshly taped sticks. He knows the tape job will wear down when he goes out for warmups but, well, it's his stick, his tape to break in.

"If someone squeezes it, I'll redo it," he said with a smile, knowing that it might sound strange, this protectiveness over his stick.


While preparing four sticks for the game, Campbell takes in as much water as possible.

Between periods, he might have a half a banana.

"But I'm pretty much set for food for the rest of the night," he said.

At 5:40 p.m., the Panthers' penalty-killing unit, which includes Campbell, will meet to go over the Bruins' tendencies. How do they break out of their zone? How do they try to break into the offensive zone?

Campbell already knows that Boston's defensemen, most notably Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, like to spread far apart along the blue line to try to open up the zone. The Bruins also like to drop a couple of forwards low to the side of the net, which the Florida defense will be have to be cognizant of.

Immediately after the meeting breaks, Campbell and the rest of the team begin their pregame warmup rituals. This means some soccer in the hallway outside the locker room. This is, admittedly, not Campbell's forte and, on this night, his teammates seem to be picking on him. He manages to kick the ball through a ceiling tile. Later a maintenance crew will come and restore all of the dislodged tiles to their rightful places.

After soccer, Campbell moves to a nearby hallway where he engages in an active warmup, getting his heart rate up with foot-movement drills.

In the Panthers' dressing room, as is the case in virtually every NHL dressing room, there is a digital clock. It does not tell time in the normal sense, but it remains a crucial piece of the team's equipment. With 40 minutes to go before the start of warmups, it starts to count down. The team heads out to the ice at the 16:00 mark. The clock restarts to 15:00, after the team comes back in. At this time, Campbell loosens his skates and retapes the stick he will use to start the game. At about the 7:00 mark, Dineen makes a few short remarks.

At 2:00 the team heads out.

After the starting goaltender, on this night Jose Theodore, Jovanovski leads the skaters out. Campbell, who is already standing out in the hallway, falls in line behind the veteran defenseman.

"He looks at the clock and tells us when it's time to go, always," Campbell said. "We're like robots."


Campbell's decision to come to Florida wasn't taken lightly.

Whether it resonates with the casual fan or not, the "burden" of a contract has the power to change if not the player then certainly people's perception of him.

Tallon signed Campbell to an eight-year, $57.143 million deal in Chicago in 2008. Expectations went through the roof just as the Blackhawks' long-dormant franchise began to ascend to dominant status. Duncan Keith, who would win the Norris Trophy in 2010, and his defense partner, Brent Seabrook, emerged as the team's go-to defensive pairing. And despite the team's success, much grumbling ensued about Campbell's "value" given his contract.

[+] EnlargeBrian Campbell and Kris Versteeg
Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI/Getty Images"I don't think he got the respect he deserved in Chicago," Kris Versteeg said of teammate Brian Campbell.

The sense of being underappreciated played a key role in Campbell's decision to leave. He has always thrived on being a player who bears significant responsibilities, and it stung not to be that person at the end in Chicago.

But it is so, again, in Florida.

"That's what I want to do," Campbell said. "I want to be a go-to guy. I'm able to do that here now."

Kris Versteeg played alongside Campbell in Chicago. Now he lives about three blocks away in South Florida, and he does not mince words about how he feels his friend wasn't given his proper due in Chicago.

"[Local commentators] never gave him any credit because the only guys that were getting credit were Seabrook and Keith the whole time," Versteeg told ESPN.com. "I think Chicago, they miss a guy like Brian, especially right now a guy that can make your offense so much better by skating the puck up. He's very swift and quick in his own zone and getting the puck and moving it up.

"He talks about how refreshing it was to come here and now to play here and play a lot of minutes and a lot more key situations, and I think he's having a lot more fun, which he should be because I don't think he got the respect he deserved in Chicago."

It is hard not to view this transition as a match made in heaven, even if heaven and hockey have been mutually exclusive in South Florida for more than a decade.

Heading into the game, Campbell's 47 points were second among all NHL defensemen. His average ice time of 26:52 was second in the league. He will be overshadowed in Norris consideration by Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Chara and Erik Karlsson, but one Eastern Conference GM told ESPN.com recently Campbell should be in the discussion given his level of play and his importance to the Panthers.

His soft passes along the blue line have been the catalyst to a breakout year by the hard-shooting Garrison, who is second among all NHL defensemen with 15 goals.

Campbell is one of those rare skilled defensemen who "makes a team go," said another NHL executive. "He's a good player."

Tallon isn't surprised. Pleased? Of course. But not surprised.

"He did it for us in Chicago, why wouldn't he do it for us here," Tallon said. "He's so important for us because he takes the heat."

Dineen told ESPN.com that Campbell's ability to play big minutes and move the puck out of trouble has made the rookie head coach's job much easier.

"His ability to log minutes and not have it affect him has been like really like no other player I've ever seen," Dineen said. "He thrives on more minutes.

"He went out for an optional skate because I was teasing him because he only got 25 or 26 minutes that night, so he felt he needed to go out for an extra few minutes because he didn't get as much as he usually did," Dineen said, joking.

"Defensively, he's got a great hockey sense and IQ, and he's got a real good feel for the game. He's been everything as advertised that I had heard about him as a person and certainly as a player."

Perhaps as important as Campbell's actual production was the signal sent by his willingness to come to Florida, to be a part of what Tallon is building here, to prove that Tallon wasn't simply looking to spend to the salary-cap floor but was looking to build something.

Even now, Tallon remains emotional about it, touching his heart when talking about Campbell's decision to come to Florida.

"It really opened some eyes and changed the whole attitude about coming here," Tallon said.


The announced crowd on this night is a generous 19,004 and the majority had to be mightily impressed with how Campbell's narrative played out.

Early on he delivered a big open-ice hip check to Boston's Brad Marchand and then drew a penalty when Marchand went after him. He earned the principal assist on the first two Florida goals and a secondary assist on the third.

He was plus-3 and broke a five-game point drought.

The Panthers, meanwhile, pulled to within two points of Boston for the second seed in the conference, an almost unthinkable possibility at the beginning of the season. And now they have their best record through 70 games since 1999-2000, the season they made their last playoff appearance.

"It's a big night," Campbell said as he prepared to change out of his postgame sweats. "A big win for us. I was having a little struggle, hit a post on an empty net last game, and you'd like to get some more bounces and I hadn't had a point in a while. I know if our team's winning that's great but I still want to contribute and help out.

"Now I'll go home and eat some food, just relax."

Tomorrow?

More of the same. At least Campbell and the Panthers hope so.