Oilers’ Campbell ready for bittersweet Maple Leafs’ tribute as he watches from bench

TORONTO — They’ll roll out the video tribute for the embattled Jack Campbell tonight in Toronto, and when it concludes, the camera will pan to Campbell so he and the Maple Leafs faithful can swap a little love after two-plus seasons together. 

Love that Campbell can certainly use these days. 

Campbell will respond with a wave and a smile, no doubt, even though it has to be killing him that it will come from the end of the bench, from underneath a ball cap. Not from the goal crease, where everyone in the Edmonton Oilers organization thought he’d be when the schedule came out last summer. 

This isn’t another story about Campbell’s struggles, or the numbers he’s posting in the first year of a big contract in Edmonton. 

This is a story about another side of being a pro athlete. The part where you’re not a conquering hero, but the schedule says you’ve got to come home anyway. 

Where the elephant in the room is standing with one foot on your ego, and another on your heart. 

“The city really embraced me during my time here, and there were other great memories. Things I’ll cherish my whole life,” Campbell said on the morning of the Oilers only visit to Toronto this season. “And, obviously, a big game tonight for the fellas.” 

You can dwell on the fact that Campbell is making $5 million US per season, or that the life of an NHL player is one we’d all — as an old friend likes to say — block slapshots in the nude to live just for one day. 

But they never tell you about this. 

They make movies about guys who return to a city where the home team gave up on him, and he makes them regret their decision. 

Nobody tells you what it’s going to be like when you show up in that city and your new team sits you down.  

“Is it hard not to be playing tonight?” Campbell is asked, after coming into the dressing room drenched in sweat, long after starter Stuart Skinner had departed on the early bus back to the hotel. 

“Absolutely,” Campbell admits. “You guys know that I hold myself to a pretty high standard, and it just hasn’t gone that way yet this year. But I am working hard. I’ll get there.” 

What got him in this position? How did we get here? 

The Toronto media — comprised mostly of people who quite like Campbell the person — have to ask. 

“It’s kind of the same story as in the last few years,” Campbell confesses. “When I’ve had a little dip (in his game) I’ve been a little too hard on myself. Just being able to let that go and just be free out there.” 

I recall years ago, talking to a heavyweight winger back in the days when every team had one. He hated the fact that he was identified mostly as a fighter, and inevitably, every interview wound its way back to that spot the player abhorred. 

The truth. 

With Campbell, as he struggles, every interview is a journey to the sport psychologist’s couch. Every “Why?” is met with self-deprecation from a goalie who just can’t — or won’t — talk his way around the uncomfortable truth. 

Someone lofts Campbell a softball: “What’s it like as a goalie to have that tandem, and kind of work off one another?” 

He just can’t not go there. 

“It’s great for the team,” Campbell responds. “Whoever is in there, you go in and try to get the two points for the team. Being confident in both guys — obviously I haven’t performed to the level I know I’m capable of — but Stu’s done a great job of going in and holding it down. 

“And I know I’m going to get my game going.” 

It’s the same in every NHL market. The initial trip back in for the departed player draws copious handshakes and hellos, culminating in a “How ya been?” media scrum. 

It abates with each subsequent visit: Zach Hyman, a Toronto native who returned as an Oiler a year ago, had his turn last year. He cedes the microphones and questions to Campbell this time around. 

Last year the Leafs’ players waxed poetic about Hyman. This year, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews — oblivious to who will have the Oilers net on Saturday night — are talking about their former ‘tendy Campbell. 

“We all love Soup,” began Matthews. “You (media) guys all know how nice a guy he is, how much he cares about his teammates, and the effort and work that he puts into his craft. It would be fun to go against him … in a game he’ll be up for.” 

Marner sounds like he knows what his old friend is going through, but there’s no chance he’s going there.  

“As we got to learn about him, it didn’t matter if he was starting or not. He was still the same guy — an awesome teammate and a special human being,” Marner said. “I’m sure it would be very cool for him to play in Scotiabank Arena, and the love he’ll get from our fan base is going to be pretty epic.” 

When that tribute comes, it will feel like a warm hug for a guy who could use a few more of those these days. 

“I definitely appreciate all the love they’ve given me in my career here,” said Campbell, when asked about the pending tribute. “I can’t really imagine what it’s gonna be like to be honest, until the moment happens. 

“You know, I love all the fans here. I love my teammates and the city.” 

He just doesn’t love coming back — right now — that’s all. 

And who could blame him? 


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