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Blackhawks just as thrilled as Brian Campbell that he’s back

Brian Campbell had 117 points in three seasons with the Hawks. (Sun-Times File Photo)

Brian Campbell tried to be magnanimous, tried to say all the right things about how the Florida Panthers were on the rise, and about how it was a good young room, and about how he’ll miss some of his former teammates.

But then the truth spilled out.

“I’m not going to miss it that much, to be honest with you,” Campbell said of South Florida. “I’m excited where I am.”

Where he is, is back home in Chicago — the city in which he won a Stanley Cup, the city in which he met his wife, the city in which he put down roots, returning every summer after every season in Florida.

And as excited as Campbell is to be back, his teammates seem even more thrilled.

“What an amazing pickup,” Patrick Kane said.

“It’s awesome, it’s great,” Brent Seabrook said.

“I got real happy when I saw that on the news,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said.

While the gaping holes up front left by departed forwards Andrew Shaw, Andrew Ladd and Teuvo Teravainen loomed large as the Blackhawks gathered for their annual fan convention at the Hilton Chicago on Friday, it was the return of Campbell that drew the most attention. The affable defenseman has kept in touch with many of his old teammates, and fell easily back into old habits on Friday, chatting up longtime pals such as Duncan Keith and Seabrook.

At 37, Campbell is still an elite skater and puck mover, a reliable defender, a savvy veteran who can play either side, and a guy whom Joel Quenneville said seems to get better with age. He led all NHL defensemen last season with a plus-31 rating.

And he fills the Hawks’ most glaring need following a disappointing first-round exit. Suddenly, the defensive corps, which leaned heavily on three rookies last season, might be the Hawks’ strongest unit. And whether Campbell is reunited with former partner Hjalmarsson, or more likely slotted alongside Brent Seabrook on the second pairing, the Hawks hope he makes the difference.

“I think we’re deeper than we’ve been in a long time,” Hjalmarsson said. “Soupy, he’s a veteran, he knows what it takes, and he’s won before. Then [Czech import Michal] Kempny’s going to be fun, to see how he plays. … I think we have a lot of excitement on the back end there. Hopefully the forwards can do their job.”

Campbell never made a secret of his desire to return to Chicago. He, his wife, and their two young daughters have lived in Western Springs for years now, and after toiling in relative anonymity in Florida, he gladly took significantly less money — $2.25 million for one year in Chicago, despite being offered a reported $4.75 million to stay with the Panthers — to rejoin the Hawks.

“He’s been playing extremely well in Florida, and when you play on a team like that, it’s tough to get a lot of good credit, compared to playing on a team like Chicago or Montreal or whatever,” Hjalmarsson said. “He’s been under the radar.”

Campbell only spent three seasons with the Hawks, after playing parts of eight seasons in Buffalo and before playing five in Florida. But he said the city and the organization stuck with him. When he won the Cup in 2010, he was living downtown, just another transient hockey mercenary. Now he sees himself as a full-blown Chicagoan. And while it’s debatable whether the Hawks or the Panthers — the latter coming off a division title — are closer to winning a championship, there’s no question where Campbell would rather pursue one.

And Campbell’s presence at the very least improves the Hawks’ chances.

“It would definitely be a lot better [to win again],” Campbell said. “It was great, obviously, but now that this is my community and my home, it’s stuff that you dream of.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus