Indeed, Bill Campbell is the least known of the 16-year-olds to represent Canada at the World Junior Championship, a short list that was made one name longer a few days ago when Connor Bedard was selected for the current 2022 team in Edmonton.
But 41 years ago, the unsung Campbell played for his country. It turned out to be the one and only time he wore the maple leaf, and although he didn’t have the career of the other 16-year-olds – Gretzky (1978), Eric Lindros (1990), Jason Spezza and Jay Bouwmeester (2000), Sidney Crosby (2004), and Connor McDavid (2014) – he was at the time a special talent at the start of a sensational junior career.
“If you look at a lot of the names that were chosen at 16, they went on to have unbelievable careers,” Campbell noted. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way for me, but I did end up having a pretty good junior career. Not the career that I’d have liked to have had in North America, but I had a good career in the American Hockey League and in Europe. But the others are certainly names everybody recognizes, and I think Connor Bedard will be, too. You see the skill level, and he’s getting better all the time. I look forward to watching him in the tournament.”
Campbell made his way onto Canada’s 1981 team thanks to an exceptional start to his season and the need for the team to add a skating defenceman. “Back in 1981, the Cornwall Royals were playing in the Quebec league,” he explained. “That was the last year the team that won the Memorial Cup represented Canada at the World Juniors. Cornwall had won that year. They were definitely the best team in the league, and I was a 16-year-old rookie playing with the Montreal Junior Canadiens. Cornwall had Dale Hawerchuk, who was an unbelievable talent. Unfortunately, he’s gone now, but he was one of those guys who was fun to watch and hard to play against. They had a lot of other great players – Scott Arniel, Marc Crawford, a young Doug Gilmour. On defence they had Fred Arthur and Fred Boimistruck. Bob Kilger was the coach. But what the Royals did was pick up seven or eight players from around the league to play on the team, and I was one of them. The tournament was in Germany that year. I was in high school, and I had to finish writing my exams before they would let me travel with the team. I was just glad to be a part of it. I didn’t play a main role, but I was one of the seven defencemen.”
Kilger and his staff were attracted to the young Campbell because of his skating. “I was an offensive defenceman,” Campbell continued. “I loved to skate. I probably wasn’t aware of it as much then, but the big ice over in Europe would have been a factor in them choosing me, having more ice and being able to skate with the puck. That was something I did all my career, but that year was my first taste of international play. I loved being over there. We were just a club team, though, and we were playing teams like Sweden and Russia and the Czechs that already had national teams, so we were in tough. We finished seventh.”
Campbell was often partnered on the blue line with 18-year-old Craig Halliday as a third pairing. “The big guys were Arthur, who was a first-round pick with Hartford, and Boimistruck, who was a first-round pick with the Maple Leafs. Eric Calder was drafted by Washington. Gilbert Delorme, who was a first-round pick by the Canadiens, was added to the team from Chicoutimi. When it came down to crunch time, it was those guys who had most of the ice time.”
Away from the rink, Campbell recalls one sobering trip in particular with the team. “Apart from playing hockey and practices, the thing I remember the most was when we took a team trip to Dachau, the concentration camp. You hear about it, but when you’re there you’re just so quiet. It’s an eerie feeling. We were without words. People were there holding photographs, crying outside. I’ll never forget it.”
Campbell was named defensive rookie of the year in the Q at the end of the 1980-81 season, but his international career went no further. “The next year, Dave King came in as coach and a national team was created in Calgary,” he explained. “I did get invited to a camp in the summer, but I think they were more interested in players from the Western Hockey League. I would like to have had a better chance, but you can’t blame them. They went on to win gold. It’s the same today. There are so many good players, and the coaches have to make choices. It was an honour to be there, but you have to fit in to the way the team is made up.”
Over the course of his four years in the Quebec junior league with Montreal and Verdun, Campbell had an amazing career. He scored 20 goals every season and finished with 321 points, a record for blueliners that lasted 18 years. In 2015, he was inducted in the QMJHL Hall of Fame, but he never got a real shot at the NHL.
“When you’re 16 and 17, the only goal you have it to play in the NHL,” he said. “That’s your dream, and then you hope to get invited to a training camp and get a chance. I was drafted by Philadelphia in 1982, but I never got a chance to play in a pre-season game. They sent me to the American League, where there were also a lot of good players waiting for a chance to play in the NHL. So you had to be in the right place at the right time. Teams often carried ten defencemen, so you had to wait down there as well. There was another rookie on the Flyers named Ron Hextall. He went down to the minors with me in 1984, and we’re riding the bus. We’re both 20 years old, and in the AHL, the average age was 27 or 28. We said to each other, we’ll never get a chance. But then Pelle Lindbergh had the car accident, and all of a sudden Ron Hextall gets a chance. You can’t predict it, but good for him. He had a great career. I never got that chance.”
Some players hang around in the AHL for as long as it takes to get to The Show; others just don’t. Campbell was one of the latter group. He had a chance to play in Switzerland, and he took it.
“My contract was up in North America. Looking back, maybe I wished I had stayed around longer, but when a team in Europe comes calling with a contract, you have to make a choice. I took a chance on Europe, with a good deal, with the bigger ice surface, more room and speed and more offence. It all helped my game. And in the mid-80s in North America, it was a different type of game. You look at how it’s played today, I probably would have had a better chance with my skills.”
His pro career in North America wasn’t entirely over, though. Campbell returned, played at lower levels, returned to Europe a second time. His itinerant career came to a close in 1997, when he was 33 and realized he needed to focus on the rest of his life.
“The kids were starting to go to school, and I decided to return to Montreal. I applied for a job at Bombardier Aerospace, and that’s where I’ve been for 22 years. But I still haven’t lost the love for hockey, playing and coaching.”
Life happens, and although Campbell never made the NHL he had a fine career in hockey, one that helped set him up for a working life off ice. His junior years were the highlight of his career, and he’s made peace with what came after.
“Every year, you see the list of players who get cut, and you think they’re a heck of a player. But you also need players who will kill penalties and block shots. You need fourth-liners and seventh defencemen, guys who do something the stars don’t do as well as someone else. But in Canada, if you don’t win the gold medal, you get questioned about it.”
The list of 16-year-olds to play for Canada will keep growing over time, slowly, no doubt, but never shrinking. And whenever a new kid gets his name on the list, like Bedard, Bill Campbell can always grin and say, I was one of them. Not the first. The second.