From the moment Brian Campbell arrived, there were a lot of people trying to figure out how to get him out of here. Maybe it was the uneasiness we had in seeing the Hawks hand out a contract to a prime free agent on the market. And make no mistake, in the summer of 2008 Campbell was the best blue-liner to have. It was something that never happened. The last big free agent contract the Hawks handed out was Nikolai Khabibulin, and we know how that went (who then strangely would have a really good season before he hit the market again). Over the years, it wasn’t something the Hawks did. It was always washed up stars like Gilmour or Housley that they went for back in the day.
Maybe it was the sheer amount of money. $7 million a year is actually still a lot, but back then it sounded like he was basically being given the United Center.
Maybe it was the method. The Hawks had already showed off all their picks they had developed, as the previous season all of Toews, Kane, Bolland, Brouwer, Hjalmarsson had made their NHL debuts to join Keith and Seabrook. Adding a huge free agent to it just seemed so foreign.
Perhaps it was just getting used to the Hawks being real players for free agents now. We had never seen that before, for sure. Maybe we were panicked we would become the laughing stocks that Toronto or the Rangers had become, handing out bad contracts after bad contracts to make up for the bad contracts you handed out before.
And it wasn’t just us, because we know that there were members in the front office that didn’t want Campbell either. It could have been Scotty Bowman, It could have been Q, who wasn’t coach when Campbell signed. When Bowman The Younger didn’t have to concern himself with only extricating the Hawks from cap hell, it was Campbell who headed for the exits.
It didn’t matter to me, because Campbell was a really fun Hawk.
I loved that the Hawks were trying to state something to the league by signing Campbell. Not just that they’d compete for free agents, but it would be somewhere they’d want to go. That certainly never happened before. Campbell was also something the Hawks didn’t have for years before. Before his arrival, Duncan Keith was simply the Tasmanian Devil out there, going every which way really quickly, except the one way he was supposed to. He hadn’t really come close to putting it together.
On a personal level, when I returned home to start The CI and decided that I would try and refer to as many players as I could by a nickname, Campbell’s “51 Phantom” was the first one I thought of. So he has that place in my heart.
Campbell was the more smooth skater, and he also know where to be. The signing of Campbell, the maturing of Keith, and the hiring of Quenneville suddenly saw the Hawks become that breakout machine you remember. Countless times per game Campbell would just wheel out from his net, beat a man and either keep going or hit that cross-ice pass to a waiting winger and the Hawks were off. You probably forgot that Campbell put up 52 points that first season here. And he did it mostly with Matt Walker dragging him into the undertow, before Hammer came up for good in March.
You may have also forgot that Campbell and Barker were probably the two best Hawks against the Flames that year in the first round, and Campbell was the best performer over the whole series against the Canucks before Kane went nuclear. It got lost because the Hawks brass and coverage made far too much out of one turnover against the Wings, a team that simply had the Hawks outclassed.
Campbell was no worse the following season, until Ovechkin broke his collarbone. And the Hawks were lost without him, ending that season 7-5-1 after he got hurt and going down 2-1 to the Predators and not looking good doing it. Campbell returned in Game 4, probably before he should have, and suddenly the Hawks had a d-man who wasn’t in a full panic in the Preds’ trap. They went 15-4 the rest of the way. He got a Cup-winning assist to boot.
The things that stick out when I think about Campbell is first the skating, but also the leadership that didn’t get as much credit as it should. You’ll recall as the Hawks were pissing away the ’10-’11 season, when most of the players weren’t face down in a puddle of beer/pile of disco dust, they kept saying how everything would be find and they would find a gear when they needed. Campbell sounded the alarm as early as January, commenting on a postgame show, “If my teammates aren’t checking the standings they definitely should be.” He knew the trouble they were in, one they escaped only by a last day collapse by the Dallas Stars.
He was a major impetus in the near-miracle comeback against the Canucks, even though they were freezing his foot to get it into his skate. A couple months later, and you could tell he was heartbroken to be asked to waive his no-trade clause. It also probably isn’t a coincidence that Hjalmarsson was an absolute disaster without him the following season.
The return didn’t end up being what we hoped, though very little of it was Campbell’s fault. Far too much always paid attention to what Campbell wasn’t than what he was. Puck-moving d-men just don’t grow on trees, and Campbell was a highly effective one for the first Hawks team to bring a parade here, unless you think Corsi marks of 56.8, 59.2, and 54.9 ’09-’11 is worth sneezing at.
It won’t be the numbers that those of us remember. It was the curl out of the corner, or joining the rush late, that he was so good at. The game moved faster when he was out there, and seeing as how the Hawks plan back then was to move it faster than anyone else could handle, that was vital.
Campbell came, he succeeded, he won, he was a professional. He is a symbol of the time everything changed around here, and for that we’ll always be appreciative.
“White lightin’ flash across the Mississippi sky…”