The career of Brown Bears defenseman Ben Campbell has been marked by two ironies that worked out in the end.
Both can be tied to his high school career at Duluth Denfeld in Minnesota.
Campbell, son of Scott and Celine Campbell, had the childhood that one might expect of somebody coming of age in hockey-mad Minnesota.
His first Christmas present was a pair of Velcro hockey skates, and he remembers growing up at rinks watching his older brother, Tyler, play.
“Since birth, I’ve had a passion for the game,” Campbell said.
By middle school, as he made all-star team after all-star team, it was apparent he had a shot to get to the high levels of the game, like the Tier II North American Hockey League.
As a junior at Denfeld, he got just that chance when the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla, a team that has since moved, wanted to tender him.
“I said no,” said Campbell, who is 6-foot, 185 pounds. “I didn’t want to play in Alaska. As it is, I’ve played all of my three years here.”
Instead, as a junior, Campbell tendered with the Alexandria (Minnesota) Blizzard of the NAHL.
But he decided to spend his senior year at Denfeld because he thought he had a good shot at making the famous Minnesota state hockey tournament.
(As it was, Campbell didn’t make state, as Denfeld lost to a Marshall team featuring a defenseman named Jake Bushey. More on that later, but, spoiler alert, that will be the second irony.)
Alexandria changed coaches after Campbell’s senior year, and the new coach wanted veteran defensemen, so Campbell was traded to Fairbanks.
“Fairbanks picked me up and it turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Campbell said. “That’s a great program that wins championships and gets the fan support that they do.
“At that point, I don’t think it could have worked out any better.”
Campbell played in 54 games for the Ice Dogs in 2012-13, finishing with three goals and eight assists with a minus-3.
Last season, he had two goals and 12 assists in 45 games with a minus-7 when the other irony struck.
In early February, Campbell was traded to the in-state rival Brown Bears. And the player coming to Fairbanks was Bushey, Campbell’s old rival from Minnesota high school days.
“I grew up playing against Marshall, because Marshall and Denfeld are rival high schools,” Campbell said. “I then played against him when I was in Fairbanks and he was in Kenai.
“Then I was traded for him. It was funny how it worked.”
But at first, Campbell said he wasn’t amused. He liked his friends and billet family in Fairbanks, and loved playing for the program.
He said a talk with Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant, a former Ice Dogs assistant, helped.
Beauparlant said the team liked Campbell’s size, toughness, ability to move the puck and ability to play on special teams. The coach also sold Campbell on an increased role that would allow him to grow more as a player.
“The biggest thing with Ben is his passion,” Beauparlant said. “He wants to play the game. He’s a competitor.”
Campbell quickly adjusted to the Brown Bears.
“I love where I am now,” said Campbell, whose billet parents are Eric Trevino and Natalie Villegas of Kenai. “I’m happy to be with the Trevinos.”
But Campbell will be the first to admit it was tough watching the Ice Dogs, after narrowly dispatching the Brown Bears in five games in the playoffs, go on to win the Robertson Cup.
Campbell nearly had the game-winner in the waning seconds in the third period of the decisive Game 5, but Ice Dogs goalie Kevin Aldridge made a sprawling save to deny him. Fairbanks then won in overtime.
It stands as one irony that Campbell narrowly missed out on.
“You could have been writing a different story,” Beauparlant said. “He had the opportunity on his stick, and he made a great read on that play in Game 5, realizing the time on the clock and jumping in on the rush.
“Like (Ice Dogs) coach (Trevor) Stewart was saying, ‘The guy I traded almost put the nail in the coffin.’”
Naturally, Campbell would have loved nothing more than to squeeze that chance by Aldridge.
“I did feel I should have been a part of that team, but it was kind of out of my control,” Campbell said. “There’s definitely still a bit of resentment when the Ice Dogs come to town, or when we go up to Fairbanks to play them.
“There’s more edge to my game. I want to prove them wrong.”
Campbell would also like to bring a little of what Fairbanks has to Kenai River.
“They have a swagger about them,” Campbell said. “When they walk into a building, they know they are going to win.
“Anything less than winning is just not acceptable. That’s the attitude I try to bring here.”
Last season, the Bears edged the Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill for a playoff spot, then this season Kenai River got off to an inconsistent start before a current 14-game stretch without a win has left them with the second-worst record in the league.
“The team mentality is we can pull out of this,” Campbell said. “We don’t have any other option. Our only option at this point is to stay with the process, work hard in practice and trust in what the coaching staff is telling us.”
Despite the slide, Campbell has remained a steady performer. He is tied for third on the team with 21 points. The only real blemish is his minus-21, but that’s what tends to happen when a team is 11-25-2.
“A lot of it is we’ve just finally found our way in the defensive zone as a team,” Beauparlant said.
Campbell said his first goal right now is to make the playoffs, and with that he’d like to earn a Division I scholarship.
“I’m far more worried about team success than personal success,” he said. “Personal success comes with team success.
“With Fairbanks, Amarillo, Janesville, there’s a reason those teams get 10 to 12 Division I commitments.”
Beauparlant said players like Campbell are the reason he believes the Bears will pull out of their skid.
“The big thing is he has that deep, deep desire to win,” Beauparlant said. “That’s what it takes to make it through the first round of the playoffs.
“When we make the playoffs this year, we’re going to be a scary team to play against, and that’s because of the type of passion that Ben brought to our club.”
Campbell also would like to find some time to enjoy more of Alaska in the future. He’s had some epic four-wheeler trips in Fairbanks and has seen some great northern lights, but he’d like to see what the state is like when the ice is out.
“At the beginning of my career, I didn’t want to play here, but it’s been a fantastic experience,” he said. “I’ve actually put some thought into living in Alaska this summer and do the camping and hiking I didn’t get to experience in my career.
“I’d like to experience all the sun instead of the darkness.”