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Finnish Foray Jumpstarted Campbell's Career

09/24/2009 11:44 AM

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Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell can't wait to get back to Hartwall Arena.

The Helsinki arena, home of the Finnish club Jokerit, was Campbell's home during the season of the NHL work stoppage and he has the fondest of memories from that time, both professionally and personally.

Brian Campbell
On the ice, Campbell really came into his own during the 2004-05 season, refining the skills that make him one of the most dangerous transition defensemen in today's NHL. Off the ice, he had his eyes opened to literally a different world.

Now, with the Blackhawks descending upon the Finnish capital for the 2009 NHL Compuware Premiere Series, Campbell is looking forward to sharing the places and people that changed his career with his Blackhawk teammates -- specifically the state-of-the-art Hartwall Arena and the supporters that help make Jokerit one of the most famous hockey teams in Europe.

"I'm looking forward to getting back there and seeing the fans and the Jokerit fans there that we (will) have," Campbell said. "I think as soon as (our) guys walk in, I can't wait to see some of the faces when they see that arena; because it's state-of-the-art, and it's going to be exciting. I think (the Finns) have a lot to give to their sports, and it's going to be exciting for not only myself to see that, but the other guys as well."

When Campbell first arrived in Helsinki in the fall of 2004, he had no idea what Finnish hockey, or the Finnish people were about. But he knew at that point of his career, he couldn't miss a year of development while the NHL sat idle. So when his agent suggested Jokerit, Campbell jumped at the chance.

"It was my only option at the time," he admitted. "I didn't want to be sitting around all year."

For Campbell, it turned out to be the perfect decision. Finland was flooded with NHL players looking for a place to play during the lockout season and the level of play was very high. Plus, most hockey insiders agree that the play in the Finnish SM Liiga is closest to the physical, north-south style played by most NHL teams. So Jokerit was the perfect proving ground for Campbell, who at the time, was still trying to find his way in the NHL. He had two full NHL seasons under his belt, but had yet to top the 20-point plateau.

It helped that Campbell was surrounded by several other North Americans who also found refuge with Jokerit that season, including goalie Tim Thomas and forward Glen Metropolit -- a pair of players trying to find their niche in the NHL, as well.

"I think when you're over there, the ice is available," Campbell said. "Might as well go out there and work on things and stay out there. So, for me, there were no outside distractions. I just enjoyed being around the game and around the guys there.

"I think it's a year of development for a lot of players that came over and had some success. I played with Tim Thomas that year, and he was the best player in that league. You know, it's just opportunities for guys when they came back. Especially for myself, and I know him. Getting an opportunity to play and succeed. So, you know, it was a lot of fun."

With hockey as his only focus, Campbell came of age quickly.

The defenseman scored 12 goals and finished with 25 points in 44 games that season in Jokerit, numbers that dwarfed anything he had accomplished to that point in the NHL. And that's because Campbell was a different player. He returned to Buffalo and his career took off. In 2005-06, he scored 12 goals and 32 assists that elevated him into the top tier of puck-moving defensemen. Campbell has topped the 40 point threshold every season since, including the 52 points he scored last season in his first campaign with the Blackhawks.

The numbers, though, were merely a reflection of the changes in Campbell's game, changes fashioned with Jokerit. Campbell was a better skater after a year of playing on the bigger ice surface in Europe. He was smarter in his decisions with the puck and, overall, he was just a far more confident player.

"You have to work each and every day to be a good player in that league, so that's kind of what I tried to do," Campbell said.

Now, Campbell returns to Helsinki as a marquee player in the NHL.

Clearly, he will be a fan favorite of the Jokerit supporters that will pack Hartwall Arena for the NHL Compuware Premiere Series against the Florida Panthers. His presence alone may well make the Blackhawks the de facto home team in the two games. At least Campbell hopes so, as he found the support of the Jokerit fans -- a boisterous group that sings and chants in a style more associated with European soccer matches -- to be one of the most pleasurable parts of his experience.

"I remember if you win a game they'd be chanting," Campbell said. "I played with Glen Metropolit there as well. And they'd be chanting 'Metro,' for his nickname, and Timmy Thomas as well. So, you know, it's trying to make (the chants) out as much as you can. So, yeah, a lot of times they go through the team there -- kind of like the New York Yankees do a little bit, at the start of their games as well."

Most likely, the loudest chants Friday and Saturday night will be for Campbell, who has done Jokerit proud.