Gregory Campbell, Florida’s third-round pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, and his Kitchener Rangers teammates have reached the Ontario Hockey League finals. Campbell and company open a seven-game series against the Ottawa 67’s on May 2. The winner will compete for the Memorial Cup – the most prestigious trophy in Canadian junior hockey. Campbell just completed his 2002-03 regular season with Kitchener, scoring 56 points (23 goals, 33 assists) with 116 penalty minutes in 55 games.
The 6-foot, 191-pound native of London, Ontario has scored a team-high 13 goals and 16 points in 16 OHL playoff games, including three game-winning goals in a first-round series sweep over Sault Ste. Marie. He scored three goals and added two assists in Games 6 and 7 to lead the Rangers back from a 3-2 deficit in games against his old team, the Plymouth Whalers, in the OHL Semifinals. Campbell, the son of National Hockey League Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, Colin Campbell, took time out of his busy playoff schedule to answer a few questions for FloridaPanthers.com.
Q. Did you get a chance to follow the Panthers at all this season?
Gregory Campbell: “Yes, actually I did. I visited the website a couple times a week and obviously I was in touch with Duane Sutter every other week or so. I don’t get all their games, but if there was a game on Canadian television, I’d flip it on. I went to a couple games when they were in Toronto to see Stephen Weiss, because obviously I played with him (in Plymouth the last two years). As many games as I could watch, I tried to follow.”
Q. How did it feel to get your first NHL contract finished back in March?
GC: “It’s a pretty exciting time, I guess, for me. Obviously it is my first NHL contract and it’s not an opportunity that a lot of guys get to have and I was pretty excited to be drafted by Florida in the first place. So, when I was able to get a contract with them, it made me that much more excited.”
Q. Having gone through the NHL Draft last year, did you give any advice to your teammates that might be about to go through the same type of experience?
GC: “A little bit. There are a couple guys from my team up for the Draft this year. Pretty much the Draft is out of your control, so for them, I would say they have a better opportunity of getting drafted in a higher position, depending on the team’s success, and obviously we’ve done pretty well this year. So, myself and my coaching staff have stressed that to the guys who are being drafted this year – that the farther our team goes, usually the more success you’ll have in getting drafted higher, that’s what I think.”
Q. How was your experience in the World Junior Championships with Team Canada?
GC: “I think it was an unbelievable experience. For me it was pretty overwhelming. Talking to the four or five guys who were returning players, I think it was the same. The experience of playing for a national team like that in your own country elevated the magnitude of the tournament, because you have so much support from the home crowd and everyone across Canada was watching you. I think it’s a good measuring stick when you play against the best junior players your age across the world. We were pretty successful. Obviously we didn’t win the gold, but a silver medal I think is a pretty good accomplishment.”
Q. What was the gold medal game like against Russia?
GC: “It was a very exciting time for me and my teammates. It was my first opportunity in basically a do-or-die situation. I had never played in an international tournament before, so it was all kind of new to me. The previous five or six games we played before the gold medal game were a pretty high level of hockey, but I would say that the gold medal game was at a different level. Obviously the Russians were one of the best teams, if not the best team, there. For us it was our most difficult game. There’s a lot of pressure. You just have to have fun with it. You get one shot at that and that was my only chance for a gold medal in that tournament. So it was a good experience. It’s too bad that we didn’t come up with gold, because that was our goal from the beginning of the tournament. But I don’t think silver is anything to be disappointed in.”
Q. Where do you keep your silver medal from the World Junior Championships?
GC: “I keep it at home. I have some memorabilia from that tournament, like my sweater and things like that, that I got there, signed by my whole team. It’s in an old rec room we have.”
Q. After playing for Plymouth for two years, was it strange to start the season with Kitchener?
GC: “It was my decision to come to Kitchener, but when you’re with a team for two years, it’s tough leaving. You make some good friends there. For me, I was fortunate to have the trade happen in the summer, so I could come to training camp and get to know the guys before the season started, whereas if I were traded during the year, the transition time would be a little harder on me. I was accepted here pretty well by all the fans and all the players and I knew the coaches from before. I think it was a good fit for me and obviously it’s turned out pretty well.”
Q. How do the towns of Plymouth and Kitchener compare?
GC: “I think Kitchener is a little bit more of a hockey town, I would say. Plymouth is right outside Detroit, so we get overlooked a little bit by the Wings and all the other pro teams around that area. People in the States aren’t too aware of the OHL, so it’s a little different. Obviously they have great support there from their fans, but in Kitchener, I would say our team is the main attraction, so there’s a few more people that follow us.”
Q. Your goal and point totals increased this year even though you played in 10 fewer games than last season. What part of your game do you think has improved the most since last year?
GC: “By looking at my stats, I tried to work on my offensive game. I think one of the strengths of my game is my defensive game and I’d like to be known as a complete player. I played with a pretty good player in Derek Roy this year and obviously he helped me with my offensive contributions, but I think it was just a maturing process for me. I worked hard over the summer, but things sort of fell into place for me this year. It was my third year in the league and I had a pretty good year offensively.”
Q. How did it feel going up against your ex-teammates in the OHL Semifinals against Plymouth?
GC: “It’s not the easiest thing. It’s a little extra motivation because you never want to lose to a team that you were with for two years. But I made a lot of friends there over two years and I enjoyed my time there a lot and it was a little bit of a game within a game for myself and my two coaches because we had some past in Plymouth. It’s not that easy. It was actually my first time back in Plymouth because I missed some games for the World Juniors. There was a little bit of an adjusting period there, but once we got into it, the bottom line is we had to win the games and it was important for us to win this series so we could move on to the OHL Finals.”
Q. Did you get any satisfaction out of playing well in Games 6 and 7 to knock the Whalers out of the playoffs?
GC: “Yeah, I think so. I think I played a pretty important role for my team in beating Plymouth and like I said before, you don’t want to lose to the guys that you’re friends with, so it’s a little extra motivation.”
Q. What type of team is Ottawa and what kinds of things will the Rangers have to do to beat them in this seven-game series? How do the teams match up?
GC: “Ottawa is a lot like Plymouth, I think. Two guys on their top line led the league in points this year and obviously you have to be aware of them. They led the league in goals. I think we were second and they out-scored us by about 50 or 60 goals this year, so they’re a huge offensive threat and we have to be aware of that. They have a great defense corps. It compares with ours. And they’re solid in the net. I think we’ve been doing a good job throughout the playoffs. There’s always been one or two guys who have been an offensive threat, and we have some pretty high-profile defensemen on our team who I think are capable of shutting down their top line. For us, we have to use our depth to our advantage. We have three or four pretty good lines on this team here and six defensemen, and our goalie has been playing good so far. For us, I think it’s going to be a matter of our third and fourth line out-playing theirs.”
Q. How big is the Memorial Cup and was reaching the Memorial Cup Tournament one of your team’s goals at the beginning of the year?
GC: “Definitely. It was our primary goal. This is my second year under these coaches (Peter DeBoer and Steve Spott) and they stress the Memorial Cup from day one at training camp, and I think that’s the proper way to do it. Set your goals high and hopefully you achieve them. In this country it’s the top junior tournament and the team that wins it is the top junior team. In your career you pretty much only get one shot at this. You might get a couple more shots at winning the Stanley Cup in the NHL but I think for juniors, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Q. Kitchener has home ice in four of the seven games against Ottawa. How has your team played at home this year and do you think it will give you an advantage?
GC: “I think so. In the Plymouth series, the first couple games at home we didn’t do too well. I think we lost two of the first three home games, but in Game 7 it came into play in a pretty big role. The building was sold out and the atmosphere in there was electric. It helped us I think. We fed off the crowd. Ottawa is five or six hours from here, so it’s always nice to start off a series at home and to be around an area that you’re comfortable in – your own dressing room. And you get to eat at home. So I think it’s an advantage for us. We just have to use it the right way and hopefully we can get off to a good start.”
Q. The Panthers have the top pick in the upcoming NHL Draft. You’ve played against all the top prospects. Who has impressed you the most?
GC: “I think three of the four top prospects are in my league this year. I’ve played against Eric Staal and Nathan Horton I think one or two times and I was at the World Junior camp with them. They’re pretty impressive players. But I have to say I haven’t seen them as much as I’ve seen Dustin Brown and obviously we played against Guelph (Brown’s team) in the second round. He impressed me a lot. We had one of our top defensemen, Steve Eminger, on him the whole series and he just kept battling. He’s strong on his skates. I think all three of those players are capable of being picked number one, but for me, I’m more familiar with Dustin Brown and I think he’s a pretty dominant player. I don’t know enough about (the top European prospects) to comment on them.”
Q. Are you following the World Championships at all?
GC: “A little bit. I watched a couple games on TV. A couple games have been on TSN and I followed that a little bit.”
Q. Do you plan on watching this year’s Draft?
GC: “Yes. It’s interesting now. It’s a lot easier to watch it now than it was to be there last year. Obviously it was a little bit more neve wracking. It’s fun to sit back now and to see who the Panthers select number one and to see where the players on my team go.”
Q. This year’s Draft has been considered by many to be a deep one. Do you agree with that assessment?
GC: “Yes, I think it is. Definitely in my league there are a lot of players of capable of going high and one day playing in the NHL. From the World Juniors, there’s a lot of players there. The USA has got a couple guys that are good prospects and the Czechs and the Russians have some pretty good players coming up too. So I think it will be a pretty deep draft.”
Q. Do you have any big summer plans this year?
GC: “No. Hopefully we’ll be done around late May, which means being in the Memorial Cup. Last summer was pretty busy with the Draft and the World Junior camps and going to Florida and whatnot, so hopefully I’ll just take it easy this summer. I’d love to come down to Florida for some conditioning camps if that’s available this summer, but other than that I’ll just relax and I know that next year is going to be a big year.”
Q. Do they let you take the Memorial Cup for a day, like they do with the Stanley Cup?
GC: “I think so. I think everyone gets to take it home for a bit.”
Interview by Michael Citro. Thanks to the Florida Panthers for allowing the reprinting of the interview.