Some ex-LA Kings are in the playoffs but few are more inspirational than Maple Leafs’ netminder Jack Campbell. Dusty Imoo reflects on their relationship.
While the 2020-21 season has certainly been an unusual one, some teams and players have enjoyed memorable campaigns. This includes the Toronto Maple Leafs and their netminder, former member of the LA Kings, Jack Campbell, who is set to start tonight as his team opens their playoff schedule against the Montreal Canadiens.
With a 35-14-7 record and 77 points, the Maple Leafs finished atop the North Division this season, but Campbell, who was acquired by the Kings last February, did not enter the year as the club’s starting netminder. That changed, however, when Frederik Andersen suffered a lower-body injury in mid-March.
Having already won his first three games of the season, Campbell thrived in Andersen’s absence, winning eight straight games to set an NHL record 11 consecutive victories to start a season. Ultimately, he finished the campaign with a stellar 17-3-2 record with a 2.15 goals-against average, a .915 save percentage, and two shutouts. But, Campbell’s vast success this season was not an overnight fix.
Far from it, in fact.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dusty Imoo, the Kings’ former goalie development coach who worked with Campbell with the club. Imoo spoke to me about his experiences helping Campbell restore his confidence and his passion for hockey, which played a major role in the goaltender’s success this season.
“It’s been an amazing thing to watch for me and I’m sure for everybody that has some kind of connection with him, but it’s not surprising to me,” Imoo said of Campbell’s play this season. “I think a lot of people can’t believe it. But for me, I’m just really happy, more than surprised or anything. I’ve always believed in Soupy. But, I think that even for me, I’m even more impressed and proud of him because he’s done this in that market in Toronto, probably the most difficult in the [hockey] world as far as dealing with the pressures and criticisms and whatnot.”
Drafted 11th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2010, there was a palpable hope that the former Windsor Spitfires netminder would be the goalie of the future in Big D. Unfortunately for Campbell, it did not work out that way.
Through bouts of injuries and episodes of shaken confidence, Campbell played just one game for the Stars in his six years with the organization. Then, in June 2016, the 6-foot-2 goaltender was traded to the LA Kings. But, what appeared to be a minor acquisition at first turned out to be anything but for the Kings and especially for Campbell.
Upon his arrival to Los Angeles, Campbell met Dusty Imoo.
Already with an established track record from his mentorship of netminders Peter Budaj and 2020 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck, Imoo was a journeyman netminder-turned-effective teacher who was about to transform a youngster who, for all intents and purposes, lost his passion for the game he loved.
“He has really taken a lot of the things that we worked on mentally as far as being happy with himself and all the stuff that has been happening, good and bad,” Imoo noted of Campbell. “He’s rolling with it a lot better now. So, as far as his resurgence is concerned, I couldn’t be happier but I’m certainly not surprised. I hope they just support him. I’m not talking just the [Maple Leafs] staff but the [Toronto] media, and just get on board with him and just support him.”
While he is thrilled for his former protege, Imoo couldn’t help but marvel at Campbell’s resilience, which was a significant factor in the netminder’s turnaround in southern California.
Back in early 2018, Campbell had told Josh Cooper of LAKings.com that finding enjoyment playing the game was hard to come by on account of the netminder judging his personal character on whether he was successful on the ice. This resulted in self-created pressure for every game he played.
“All day, every day it was like ‘I’m a good person,’ obviously I always try to be a genuinely good person and stuff, but I would view myself in the mirror as like if I’m a good or bad person based on if I won or lost,” Campbell told Cooper in 2018.
Not even winning the Calder Cup with the AHL’s Texas Stars in 2014 could remedy Campbell’s mental mindset as the netminder would later be sent down to the ECHL with the Idaho Steelheads. Just when things were looking dire, though, the Port Huron, MI, native got the call that he was traded to the Kings and, in due time, would learn to love the game again.
“He really has learned through our time to not focus on the outside stuff and the white noise, and just go out there every night and have fun with his teammates, and do the best he can, and be the best Jack Campbell he can be,” Imoo explained.
As for his breakout performance with the Maple Leafs this season, the former Kings goalie development coach was, simply put, in awe.
“The records and the accomplishments that he’s set are mind-boggling, especially in the [Toronto] market,” an amused Imoo emphasized. “And how he’s done it in a supporting role at first, then getting hurt twice, coming back twice, and having all that criticism and pressure that he’s just a back-up and he just kept going.”
Needless to say, witnessing Campbell’s impressive play this season has been, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, euphoric for the Imoo family.
“Then, what happens is all these frickin’ results,” Imoo added, chuckling. “It was crazy. Everybody in my whole family– he simply knows all our family, he would stay here — and we were all just so happy that he was breaking these records. It’s so cool.”
When looking at Jack Campbell’s current situation, though, it all comes down to perspective.
On the one hand, he is entering the playoffs with the hopes of bringing a team as scrutinized as the Maple Leafs to the proverbial promised land in hopes of ending the club’s 64-year Stanley Cup drought. On the other hand, though. the 29-year-old could simply be playing with house money, so to speak. That is, at least, how his mentor-turned-friend chooses to see it.
“We talk about this: The market that he’s in right now and all the hype and all this stuff, I just told him that there’s actually, in my opinion, zero pressure on him because I said so and he listens to me,” Imoo said, laughing. “But, seriously, there is no expectation from anybody prior. He’s just built this as he’s gone along, and I said, win, lose, or draw, nothing changes in my beliefs. And, what I’ve told him before, I always said to him, whether you win or whether you lose, at the end of the day, if you go out there prepared and be the best Jack that you can be every night, you’re going to have better results more times than not because you’re in the right frame of mind. And, I said as soon as you start thinking about the win or ‘I gotta get this,’ even if you’re doing it unselfishly for the team or for the city or, that’s when [crap] can go sideways quickly. Your intentions are good but the pressure mounts. So, I said, ‘That’s all internalized pressure’, and I just said just to remain focused on just being the best you can be, and go out and have some fun doing it, and just be thankful and grateful.”
Very well said by the 50-year-old. But, he wasn’t done there.
“I said, ‘You’re going to be the starter in the Stanley Cup playoffs,'” Imoo beamed with a chuckle. “So, he seems to be in a really good spot. It’s not going to be easy. He’s human. I mean, he’s really done an amazing job with it all, but he is human, so this can be a good challenge for him. I’ve just been reading these things, like, ‘Can he do it?’, ‘Is he good with no experience,’ blah, blah, blah. Jack, like a lot of guys, if you show them 100 percent support through the good and the bad, these kinds of guys can just shine. Like, they get hot and they just flourish. He lost those couple of games, if you recall, then people were freaking out. You know what I mean? The guy was 17-3-2 or whatever it was. Like, seriously? I know it’s the media but as far as– if I was over [in Toronto], that would be my main message: If you love Jack Campbell, love him when he’s doing good or bad, and just to have his back, he’ll do great things. So, that’s my hope. I know a lot of people are rooting for him, for sure.”
At the risk of sounding hokey, there is more Maple Leaf than Canadien in all of us.
In the post-expansion era, the latter consistently won Stanley Cups or, at the very least, consistently contended for hockey’s Holiest prize. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have had a more difficult time finding ultimate success, being looked at as comedic fodder above most else.
We all deal with defeat more than we deal with victory, but we are also fortunate not to struggle with those defeats on the public stage. Jack Campbell was not as fortunate in this regard, but the resilience formed to counter those struggles have only made the 29-year-old stronger, wiser, and better.
For fans of the LA Kings, some can choose to be bitter that their team traded him away but more can, and will, celebrate Jack Campbell for what he has overcome as a person riddled with self-doubt, among other afflictions. But, we must also celebrate Dusty Imoo not only for the work he has done in helping the younger netminder but for simply believing in him when few others did. Campbell himself included.
Dusty’s tireless work with goaltenders, which also includes Cal Petersen, has not gone unnoticed. In fact, Imoo recently started thegoalietherapist.com, helping netminders in need. You can visit the website or find him on Twitter and Instagram.
Also, be sure to check out Imoo’s podcast, Motley Thoughts, where his guests have included the aforementioned Peter Budaj, former Ontario Reign head coach Mike Stothers and mental health activist, and former NHL goalie, Corey Hirsch.
As for Jack Campbell, whether you love him or hate him or the team he plays for, most, if not all, would be hard-pressed to find a reason not to root for him entering the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. After all, his success, if nothing else, underlines the deep lining of inspiration all of us need as human beings to be happy and to love what we do no matter the obstacle.
Campbell and the Maple Leafs begin their postseason tonight against the Canadiens at 7:30 pm ET at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.