Brian Campbell just can't help but ask why. Why him? Why are the childhood dreams of every kid who picks up a hockey stick coming true for him at this moment?
Being Brian Campbell today is like living in a fantasy world. He's one of the most popular players on a Buffalo Sabres team that is being embraced by this town like few other teams have. He's one of the most respected voices in a dressing room filled with leaders. His name is among the NHL's best in several categories, playing for a team that is the league's best. Fans say he deserves to be an All-Star more than any other defenseman in the Eastern Conference.
For Campbell, it all adds up to that one question.
"When you're a kid, you grow up dreaming of doing stuff like this," Campbell said Thursday after practicing for tonight's home game against Montreal. "The question you ask now is, 'Why is this happening to me? Why am I that person?'
"Obviously, I put work into it. But why wasn't somebody else picked? You always wonder that, I guess."
When searching for answers, it helps to look at the beginning. Campbell readily pictures the early mornings of 15, 20 years ago. He grew up in the small Ontario town of Strathroy, population 20,000, located just past the halfway point on the drive from Buffalo to Detroit. His next-door neighbor managed the local ice rink. If Campbell had a game at 7 a.m., his father would bring him to the arena at 6:15 and they'd get the workers to open the doors early.
"Dad would fire the lights on and get out there and skate," Campbell said. "Just going around the ice as a kid, and my dad would say, 'OK,' and we'd do spins and stuff all the time like that. I remember that to a tee. We'd be out there and just skating around and stickhandling and doing whatever."
Campbell parlayed those early lessons into a successful junior career. He was the Ontario Hockey League's Most Outstanding Player in 1998-99. A sixth-round draft pick of the Sabres in 1997, he shuffled between Buffalo and Rochester for three seasons before joining the Sabres full time.
That's when the next lessons began. They were the hardest. Campbell spent the early part of 2002-03 in the press box, waiting -- and waiting -- for the chance to play. When he finally dressed, his task was simple: Just don't mess up.
He thought he was following that advice pretty well the next season, until the trade deadline came. The Sabres acquired Brad Brown and Jeff Jillson, and Campbell again found himself in the press box, waiting -- and waiting -- for the chance to play.
"I know that I had 29 healthy scratches the year before the lockout. I know that," Campbell said. "I don't think that'll ever leave me. . . . It was just a case where I had to work harder.
"I probably questioned myself about whether I could play in this league at some of those times. I've always wanted to play on special teams and stuff, and I wasn't playing much power play and stuff like that. You just want to know, 'Can I do that? Can I play on the power play? Can I kill penalties? Can I even play five-on-five in this league?' It was just a struggle for me with my confidence that way, always wondering if I could do that."
The answers started coming during the lockout, when Campbell played in Finland, and last year, when he began getting special-teams time with the Sabres. Every hockey query has been answered resoundingly this year. Campbell has been on the ice more than any other Sabre the past six games, logging up to 30 minutes, 11 seconds of ice time and getting no less than 25:52. He's third in the league with a plus-15 rating, and he's tied for seventh among defensemen in points (16) and assists (13).
"I think he got a lot confidence going and playing in Europe in the lockout," said Sabres goalie Martin Biron, who sits directly across the dressing room from Campbell, allowing them to playfully antagonize each other every day. "He went over there and was able to freewheel, get his legs going and his hands going. He could really feel a lot of confidence. He came back and he was a different player. He was the guy he is right now."
The 27-year-old has figured the game out, but there's still that one question of, Why me? There's plenty of clues, and Campbell is savoring these joyous days of discovering the answer and dreaming of what else lies ahead.
"Things are good. I can't complain about anything," he said. "I'm just having fun."