Having grown up in the U.S. border town of Port Huron, Mich. – across the river from Sarnia, Ont. – Jack Campbell knows a thing or two about Canadians.
He knows how passionately Canadians love their hockey, and more importantly, how beloved the world junior championship has become in this country. Silver is often seen as second-best, and finishing out of the medals usually calls for a great national debate.
“Team Canada, the pressure those guys play under is pretty crazy,” said the first-round pick of the Dallas Stars. “It’s almost like a religion – this tournament – for Canadians. They don’t count down to Christmas, they count down to world juniors, so it’s pretty funny how that works.
“It’s nice being American because we don’t really have that kind of pressure on us. We just go out there and do the best that we can. That’s all we can do. We’ll leave the pressure for those (Canadian) guys.”
Campbell also knows that Canadians like to yell, often while he’s wearing his Team USA jersey. Sometimes the language gets a little salty, but it’s always hostile. He learned that as a 17-year-old playing at the 2010 world junior championship in Saskatoon, his first, en route to an American gold medal.
Now entering his third and final tournament in Edmonton and Calgary, Campbell is an old pro. He’s learned what to expect from the crowd - and he embraces it.
“I live for that crowd,” said the 19-year-old of anti-American sentiment. “I absolutely live for it. When they chanted my name (during the 2010 gold medal game in Saskatoon) as a 17-year-old, I think it might have been the most memorable experience of my career. I don’t know how people could shy away from a crowd like that, it’s just so much fun. If I was a kid and you were to tell me I would be up in Canada in front of 20,000 Canadians screaming my name – I’d be there in a heartbeat. It’s what I play hockey for.”
And the world junior tournament is where Campbell plays his best hockey. Last year while helping the U.S. to a bronze medal, he was named the tournament’s top goaltender and an all-star after posting a 1.70 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in six games. According to USA Hockey, Campbell is sixth among American goalies all-time with 519 minutes played at the world juniors and is tied for second with seven career wins.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Campbell of his third trip to the tournament. “Time flies. I’ve enjoyed every single tournament so far and 2010 was very special winning the gold. And 2011 was really special playing in the United States, and this year I think will be even more special going back to Canada and competing for that gold medal.”
Forward Jason Zucker, a second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, is the only other player from that 2010 squad, though the Americans have seven returning players from the bronze medal squad that lost to Canada in the quarter-finals. Included in the mix are veteran forwards Emerson Etem (Medicine Hat Tigers), Nick Bjugstad (University of Minnesota) and Charlie Coyle who recently left Boston University for the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs. Defensively they’ll be led by returnees Derek Forbort (University of North Dakota) and Jon Merrill (University of Michigan).
“It’s huge,” said Campbell of the experience in their lineup. “Obviously that’s not the whole thing or the recipe to win, but it’s definitely huge when you’re playing in the Canada game and the fans are going crazy for Canada and you’ve already played in that kind of environment. Nobody’s intimidated or anything like that.”
This season in the Ontario Hockey League, Campbell has a 12-7 record with a 3.01 goals against average and .909 save percentage split between his former Windsor Spitfires and the Soo Greyhounds, his new team after a trade in early November.
Backing up Campbell this year is USA Hockey’s heir apparent, goaltender John Gibson, 18, who plays for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Gibson – a second-round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks -- is a year younger than Andy Iles, who served as backup for the 2011 tournament in Buffalo, N.Y.
“He’s been our most valuable player to this point,” said Rangers head coach and GM Steve Spott of Gibson. “He’s going to be a real nice addition for Team USA.
“If John Gibson is your backup, you’ve got good goaltending, I can tell you that.”
Just like last year, the U.S. plays Canada on New Year’s Eve in what is expected to be one of the marquee games of the tournament, with scalpers on sites such as Craigslist already asking upwards of $500 for a single premium seat.
“You have to win all the other games too, to win the gold medal. All the games are important – so I wouldn’t say Canada is the most important game, but it’s the most fun game,” said Campbell. “They all matter but that will be the most enjoyable with the fans and the chance to beat a team in their home country, and they’ll be tough to beat.”
They’ll be even harder to beat without the services of star defenceman Justin Faulk. The 19-year-old was named to the team, but was not released by the Carolina Hurricanes because general manager Jim Rutherford felt Faulk was “too valuable” to the NHL team. The U.S. also lost promising defenceman Seth Jones, 17, who suffered an upper-body injury during an exhibition game against Russia.
“Losing Justin is obviously a pretty huge blow for us just from the standpoint that he’s playing in the National Hockey League, so clearly he’s a very special player,” said Campbell. “But I think we have some unbelievable defencemen. When you look back at all the world championships we’ve won, it all starts from the blueline because of how solid our defencemen are. They’re all really big guys, they all move the puck well, skate well and they’re pretty nasty. I’m definitely the most confident in my defencemen.”
And there’s no doubt, given his experience, that Team USA is most confident in Campbell. He believes the key to the Americans winning this year will be keeping composed and not letting up – no matter who they’re playing in the 12-day tournament.
“Everything rides on one game,” said Campbell. “If you look at our schedule this year, we have the Finland game and the Canada game – which a lot of people will say are our big games … but every game we have to come out and play our best. It’s not just about the one game, it’s about building momentum going into the next game.
“So whether you’re up 3-0 or 8-0, you want to keep putting that pedal down on the floor.”