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Brian Campbell can laugh about the situation now that the misery has subsided. Last February, it was anything but funny. He felt his career was collapsing around him. It seemed nobody would listen.

Looking back, with the picture no longer clouded by frustration and anger, Brian Campbell realizes his biggest problem last season might have been being self-absorbed with Brian Campbell. Looking back, it's understandable why he was confused about his place with the Buffalo Sabres.

After all, he jumped from junior hockey to the Sabres in five months. The arenas were bigger, the lights brighter. He was hopping aboard team charters, playing in the league for which he was destined. Everything was fine except for one small detail: Campbell had nary an inkling about pro hockey.

"I didn't have a clue how to play last year," Campbell said with a smile Wednesday before the Sabres' 4-2 win over the Leafs before 18,766 in the Air Canada Centre. "I had not one bit of a clue how to play a pro-style game."

What's worse? Not knowing how to play or not recognizing that you don't know how to play? Campbell arrived as a free-wheeling, puck-carrying 20-year-old defenseman with a hockey bag overflowing with potential. He had a terrific training camp with the Sabres last season and earned a job while veterans Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener solved contract disputes.

Campbell scored one goal and set up another in his second NHL game. He had three points in his first six contests. A week later, he was in Rochester, a demotion he handled about as well as Nixon handled the Watergate scandal. It wasn't long before he was immersed in self-pity followed by self-doubt followed by self-destruction at the blue line.

"Your ego gets in the way," Campbell said. "You think, 'I don't need (the AHL). I'm ready for this step (to the NHL).' I was successful in the early part of the year here. I thought I was playing well."

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Campbell was the OHL's top player in 1998-99 and carried the Ottawa 67s to the Memorial Cup title but, suddenly, he wasn't even the Amerks' best defenseman. He wouldn't embrace the defensive system installed by Amerks coach Brian McCutcheon because he wanted to play the offensive style that made him successful. The only thing mounting more than his frustration were his mistakes.

"I pointed out to him that he had to alter his game somewhat," said McCutcheon, now an assistant with the Sabres. "In junior, he could get away with carrying the puck. At this level, he had to pick his spots better."

The breaking point came in February. Campbell was waiting to board the team bus in Rochester when his father pulled him aside and told him everything Campbell didn't want to hear. The elder Campbell essentially told his son to toughen up, stop whining and grow up.

Campbell didn't speak to his dad for three days. Instead, he spent the cease-fire examining his career. He realized the one person who wasn't listening was him. It was a critical point in his growth. His bruised ego escaped, and his talent emerged. He finished with two goals and 24 assists in 67 games.

"He's a better player," veteran defenseman James Patrick said. "He's a year older, a year smarter and he's a little stronger. It's an adjustment to come from junior and play against older, faster guys either here or the American League. He's learned how the game works."

Campbell was paired with Richard Smehlik on Wednesday night against the Leafs. J.P. Dumont, Chris Gratton, Miroslav Satan and rookie Dmitri Kalinin scored for Buffalo, which improved to 6-0 in the preseason. Dominik Hasek made 23 saves over 60 minutes. Sergei Berezin scored both goals for the Leafs.

Buffalo has two more exhibitions remaining before the regular season opens next Thursday against Chicago. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff could have some tough decisions over the next few days regarding his defensemen. Patrick could miss the opener with a separated shoulder. Jason Woolley has a nagging groin injury.

Kalinin has all but sewed up the sixth spot on defense. Ruff has been impressed with Campbell and Jason Holland, who quietly has played well in camp. The last opening could come down to experience. Holland, 24, enters his fifth pro season.

At least Campbell understands another trip to Rochester wouldn't be about decline but development. Anyway, the AHL isn't so bad.

"That stage is definitely a stage you need," he said. "When I look back on it, it's a very good league. It's where I can develop my skills and make mistakes. I have a totally different perspective on everything."

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