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How hockey’s horrific offseason impacted Gregory Campbell

09.09.11 at 7:01 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — This time of year, hockey players are used to mostly talking shop. The usual stuff: what shape they’re in, what they learned in the previous season, etc.

This year’s different, though. As hockey starts up again, the game can move on from, but not forget, what has been a devestating summer. Gregory Campbell had to remember fallen friends, smiling only when he could talk shop.

“When he got on the ice, he was like a robot. That guy blocked more shots than anybody I think I’ve seen in my life,” Campbell said of Karlis Skrastins, one of the former NHL players who died in Wednesday’s KHL plane crash. “He had wrist guards, and literally armor underneath his hockey equipment. He was such a warrior on the ice. It was almost contridictory, because he was so gentle off the ice and such a good person.”

Yet as far as anecdotes can take someone mourning multiple losses, Campbell often found himself repeating one word that was used far too often over the summer: tragic.

The sad streth for the sport began during the conference finals, when Rangers tough guy Derek Boogaard died of an accidental drug overdose. Jets forward Rick Rypien committed suicide in August, and newly retired enforcer Wade Belak hanged himself two weeks ago. It was already a gloomy time for the game, but the most horrific blow came Wednesday when a plane carrying the entire KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl killed 43 people, including nine former NHL players.

Given the astoundingly large number of players who perished over the offseason, it’s hard to find a player throughout the league who wasn’t personally impacted by the tragic events the summer held. On Thursday, Zdeno Chara grieved over the loss of close friend Pavol Demitra. On Friday, it was Campbell’s turn.

“I feel like the whole hockey community is really a family, and the longer you play the game, the more players you meet, the more players you play with,” he said. “That’s one unique thing about sports, is you do get to interact with so many different people along your career. … For the hockey family, so to speak, to lose as many members as we did in one summer is really just tragic. I don’t think that there’s ever been a summer like this.”

The summer, which featured Campbell’s day with the Stanley Cup, already had a dark cloud of it prior to Wednesday, as he was close friends with Belak (“I still kept in contact with him,” Campbell said) from the two seasons that they were teammates in Florida. Then Wednesday’s plane crash occured, taking the lives of former Panthers teammates Ruslan Salei and Skrastins.

“Karlis was just the nicest man that I’ve ever met in my life,” Campbell said. “He was really, really soft-spoken. Quiet, but just a gentle, kind person.”

“Rusty was a jokester. He was always the first guy at the card table, one of the louder guys on the team,” he said of Salei. “Guys would tease him as a grumpy old man, but that was in a total joking manner. At heart he was a really good guy, and that was his way of expressing his affection to other people.”

A player with strong family values (he had father Colin on the ice in Vancouver when the B’s won the Stanley Cup), Campbell expressed his sympathies to the families of all the players who died too young. As hard a summer as it’s been for the game, he does feel there is a lesson to be learned amidst the sorrow.

“On the hockey front, we really have to appreciate it and have respect for what we do and how lucky we are,” Campbell said. “More importantly, on the life side of things, you have to appreciate life and appreciate what’s important in life. In sports, there’s often lots of ups and downs, but that doesn’t compare to the times you spend with your family and the people close to you. That’s what you have to appreciate and savor.”

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