From Rock Bottom To The NHL: LA Kings G Jack Campbell

Los Angeles Kings backup goaltender Jack Campbell
Photo: Gann Matsuda/
(click above to view larger image)

EL SEGUNDO, CA — Rookie goaltender Jack Campbell has been on quite the whirlwind over the last couple of weeks. Indeed, he was recalled by the Los Angeles Kings on February 22, 2018, from the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League, and just five days later, he earned his first National Hockey League win in a 4-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Campbell, 26, was selected by the Dallas Stars in the first round (11th overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The 6-2, 197-pound native of Port Huron, Michigan was acquired by the Kings on June 25, 2016, in a trade that defenseman prospect Nick Ebert to the Stars.

If the fact that Campbell was a 2010 draft pick doesn’t raise a red flag for you, it should. His journey to the NHL has been long and arduous, and that’s putting it mildly. In fact, his time with the Dallas organization was pretty much a downward spiral, and he certainly hit rock bottom.

Campbell got a new lease on his career when he was traded to the Kings—everything changed, and for the better. Frozen Royalty reported on Campbell and his story during the 2016-17 season, and strongly recommends reading those stories before continuing with this one. You can read those stories here and here.

Back to his first NHL win…always trying to be a good teammate, Campbell deflected the attention to his teammates when asked about his feelings.

“Honestly, it was just a huge game for our team,” he said. “It was great to get four points against those guys. They’re a really good team. We’re feeling good about how we played. For me, I always want to win, so it feels great, and to do it with these guys is awesome.”

Campbell then gave credit to his coaches, Bill Ranford and Dusty Imoo, who he exchanged text messages with after the win.

“He always texts me after every game, even if he’s on the road, scouting,” he noted. “He was really happy, and he earned that win, too.”

“I still have a lot of work to do,” he added. “It was a good win and everything, but when I looked at the game, there’s still a lot of areas that I have to work on to be a good goalie at this level. But yeah, he texted me and it was a really cool moment because without him, I wouldn’t have gotten here.”

Campbell continued to deflect the attention away from himself, instead elaborating on what he did well, and what he needed to improve upon.

“My tracking and rebound control were on point,” he said. “My puck handling—I thought I was going to have trouble with that because of the speed of the game, especially against Vegas, with how quick they are, and when I was watching the game the night before—it was a luxury to be able to watch [Jonathan] Quick in there. They came really hard at him, so I was expecting that. Maybe it was the back-to-back [games], but they gave me a little more time than I thought I was going to have. Also, the guys made it easy by being really loud back there, talking, telling me what play call to use.”

“The areas I have to work on—they’re so good at this level,” he added. “I’ve got to find that back seam, narrowing my stance—, just being able to explode over [laterally]. We worked on that [in practice], and it already feels a little bit better.”

Campbell was fortunate enough to have his parents in the building to watch him earn his first NHL victory.

“They were pretty overwhelmed with the moment,” he said. “We’ve been waiting a long time, and I’m from a small town in Michigan, so people back home have been waiting for this for a long time, too. It’s just really special to be able to give them a win and most importantly, to give the team a win. It just meant a lot of the people back home, and to my parents.”

As one might expect, Campbell’s phone blew up that night and the following morning.

“I had a lot of messages, and a lot more than normal,” he said. “I’m not that popular, but it was really cool. There were messages from friends, family, old teammates. That was really cool.”

“[Stars goalie] Kari Lehtonen [also sent him a congratulatory text message],” he added. “He’s just a really good guy. I spent a lot of time with him in Dallas, and I think he saw how down I was when I was there, and ever since I was traded here, he’s sent me messages here and there. That’s really cool because I looked up to him when I was in Dallas.”

“My idol growing up, [former Stars goalie] Marty Turco, who I talked to quite a bit—I kind of got close to him because in my draft year, I wrote a speech about him when I was in high school. So he texted me, too. That was really cool.”

A Long Time Coming

Campbell never really talked about his own feelings about his first win. But he was more forthcoming when asked about, not only being recalled by the Kings, but knowing that he was going to be given a real chance to backup Quick as the number two goaltender in the organization.

“It’s been such a long journey,” he beamed. “This is such a great group, and it’s such an exciting time of the year, trying to get into the playoffs. I’m just trying to do whatever I can, and in whatever role I play, I’m just trying to be the best team guy I can be.”

Although Campbell was reticent to talk about his own feelings about his first NHL win, his coach was a bit more forthcoming.

“It was pretty special to see him do that,” said Imoo. “I was really happy for him. He definitely put a stamp on that and made a statement. I was really proud of him.”

Although he got one start with the Stars, his second one—his win over Vegas—was a long time coming—more than four years.

“I was just overwhelmed with happiness [when he got word of his recall],” said Campbell. “It’s been a long time for me and I expect big things for myself. I kind of let myself down when I was with Dallas. But coming here was such a great, fresh start from day one—just getting that phone call from Bill Ranford and management two summers ago. It was such a reset button [thing]. It’s only been great from there. There’s been some ups and downs with games and stuff, but that’s only allowed me to grow, as a goalie, and mentally, as a person.”

“It’s been a long time and a long journey,” he added. “This is my first real opportunity to be a regular NHL goaltender. It’s the opportunity that I’ve always wanted. It’s what I’ve always believed I could do and worked hard for. But you’ve got to play well and you’ve got to be consistent.”

“I know that just getting here and getting the opportunity is only the first step. I’m just going to do everything I can to enjoy it and work as hard as I can to be ready. I’ve got to make sure that I’m ready to play.”

Campbell also credited former Kings backup goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who was traded to the Arizona Coyotes, for helping him.

“What Darcy did here was incredible,” he observed. “I watched as many games as I could. It was really helpful to me to watch him—how calm he was. It just shows that you can have a big impact, even if you’re only playing 15-20 games a year. Obviously, with Quick, he’s a stud in there, so we’re going to count on him. But I know that I have to be ready at any time.”

“I kind of followed Darcy,” he added. “He was having such a great year. I was learning from him and picking his brain when I was up here a couple of times. I also read what he said about how hard he worked in practice so that he could stay sharp for when he came in. That helped me a lot. [I learned] that you’ve got to be really detailed and practice like it’s a game, because you might not see game action for a while. But when you do, you’ve got to play well.”

When asked about his nearly eight-year journey to the NHL from his draft year, Campbell reflected on how unprepared he was for the jump to the professional ranks, and how far he has come since.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “I just remember being 18, just being drafted that summer and playing in an exhibition game. We beat Colorado. Lehtonen and I split [that game], and they sent me back to junior. That wasn’t unexpected, but I remember bawling my eyes out, thinking I was going to make the team.”

“I’ve come a long way, in terms of maturity,” he added. “Still working on it. You never stop working on that. But I’ve been able to, not change, because a lot of my good qualities were also like my worst enemy. But now, I’m able to monitor it and it allows me to compete hard.”

As reported in this space during the 2016-17 season (see the two stories referenced earlier), Imoo pointed out that unlike so many highly-touted goaltending prospects, Campbell not only went in the wrong direction after his draft year, he plummeted to the bottom.

“There’s so many goalies who are coming up and playing well,” he noted. “That’s basically what happens in hockey. They start [their professional careers] in the minors and come up. But Jack’s journey, I think, is special in that he had a bottom.”

“Lots of guys who are making it just keep working their way up,” he added. “Everything is good. They start in junior, work their way up to the minors. They become a star in the minors, and then, stars in the NHL. Everything takes a similar course. But with Jack, he hit bottom, and it looked like things were done for him. That makes the call-up and the win and doing it in that fashion—I’m sure Jack felt a lot of emotions.”

Campbell was very quick to give Imoo a huge stick tap.

“Last year was great because he took a lot of control—he was more holding my hand, if you will,” he noted. “‘All right, Jack. Do this. Do that. Don’t do this.’ But this year, it was nice to go back down and play a lot, because he just left me alone. That allowed me to mature and be prepared for this moment. Now it’s all the years or working, the ups and downs—it’s a matter of me being great in practice, being ready when my number is called, and helping this team get wins.”

But to start the 2017-18 season, Campbell had to deal with adversity once again when he was sent down to Ontario to start the season, rather than remain with the Kings.

“Jack thought he was going to be up [with the Kings],” said Imoo. “He was hopeful that he had done enough to earn that. But in hockey, you can’t predict every decision. All you can do is work on your game and be the best you can be. If you get called upon, you’ve got to make the most of your opportunities. Rarely does it happen [where a player thinks], ‘I’m ready. Now it’s my turn.’”

“One of Jack’s big challenges is controlling the ups and downs of his emotions, because he takes things very personally, even if it’s not meant personally,” added Imoo. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s good, sometimes, but it’s actually been a big challenge for him, especially when he was younger. So it wasn’t easy. I just tried to tell him that things happen. You can whine and cry about them, or you could learn from them and get stronger. Use it as another learning tool.”

“The plus side was that we were going to get to work together for a while longer, whether it was a full year, half-a-year, or whatever. Consider it an opportunity, not a demotion.”

That’s exactly what Campbell did, which was critical with both Cal Petersen and Jeff Zatkoff sharing the load in goal with the Reign—the situation could’ve been a catastrophe.

“The fact that they were going to be placed into that situation—they turned it into a positive,” Imoo noted. “But that was a big concern of mine when they said that Jack would be going down [to Ontario]—that we would be able to turn this into something positive. That was my first big sit down with both of them, and Jeff Zatkoff was there, too. But we all enjoyed each other’s presence and company. We all thought we could learn a little bit from everyone—all of us. We just tried to embrace it, and it actually turned out to be the best thing for all of them.”

“When you have a situation with two goalies [in a platoon situation], or even three goalies, not everybody’s happy all the time, so if that stuff starts to leak, it becomes like a virus,” Imoo added. “It gets really ugly, really fast. But I said we can have a situation here where we have great personalities, great work ethic. You can each learn from each other. When you’re not in, support the other guy. It’ll just elevate each of you as you go along. No one’s going to remember if you played 60 games or 30, as long as you’re playing great, and what a story that would be, if you guys all play great. As it turned out, Jack and Cal [Zatkoff was soon traded] took the bull by the horns.”

The Kings have three more back-to-back situations remaining on their schedule. As such, Campbell is likely to play at least one more game, and probably two or three. Given the Kings’ precarious position in the Western Conference playoff race, it will be interesting to see how he handles that added pressure in what could turn out to be must-win games.

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