The Tillsonburg Talker: Stories from Colin Campbell
A testament to the Petes’ dedication to the development of their players is in the record of their alumni. The Petes have produced lawyers, entrepreneurs, musicians and a web of figures expanding across the varying layers of the NHL, including Bettman’s right hand man: Colin Campbell.
More commonly referred to as Coli around the Memorial Centre, the Director of Hockey Operations with the NHL spent three seasons with the Petes starting in 1970. While playing in the Electric City, Campbell skated alongside Doug Gibson, Bob Gainey, Stan Jonathan, Doug Jarvis, Bill Evo, and others.
He was coached under Roger Neilson, who he joined in 1981 while playing for the Vancouver Canucks, and then again as assistant coach in 1991 with the New York Rangers. Colin saw more time in the NHL as coach than he did player, splitting his ten years manning the bench between the Big Apple and Motor City.
Shortly after concluding his coaching career, Colin joined the NHL executive as Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations. In this role he saw the 2004-05 lockout, chairing a committee to evolve the NHL’s rule book during the suspended season. Since his hiring to the big show, Campbell has seen his son Gregory win a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins, a fellow Pete Kris King be added to the executive, and league he loves, expand.
Although the hockey world is quickly progressing and remarkable moments continue to be added to his bank of memories, for Coli there are ones that stand out for their humour or nostalgia.
Its not ‘Semi’
Like many with irregularly spelled names, Colin fell victim to having his first pronounced incorrectly throughout junior hockey. Although spelled with an ‘i,’ his mother insisted that his first name be pronounced like the body part or punctuation: colon.
“Every Campbell [name] is called ‘soup,’ right, so I was called Soupy when I played, which I didn’t like,” explained Campbell.
The former defenceman declared, “people call me Coli.” He described the introduction of the nickname semi as a means to explain the proper pronunciation of his name by teammates Craig Ramsay and Doug Gibson. “Only him and Craig Ramsay call me ‘Semi,’ because semi-colon. Its not Colin [with a soft o], its Colin [with a hard o], but that’s not me, that’s my mom, she called me Colin, so what do you do?”
Regardless of his approval, the inside joke has sustained the test of time as Gibson, a one-time Montreal Canadiens scout, and previous Edmonton Oilers coach, Ramsay, continue to refer to Campbell as the first half of a punctuation mark.
“They were only two guys. I see them every now and then and we used to go out and he’s the only guy that calls me ‘semi.’”
Coli and the penalty box
Before room for timekeepers and separate penalty boxes, hockey players in the OHL were forced to share a bench with their opponent in the sin bin.
In the early 70ss the OHL implemented a regulation requiring all rinks in the league to build separate penalty boxes, corresponding to the home and visiting team in the likely chance there was a member from each team simultaneously sent for a timeout.
Regardless of this request, the management of the Memorial Centre did not succumb to the league’s structural suggestions. That is until, Colin and Greg Neeld entered a royal rumble in the single box during a home game against the Sudbury Wolves.
“I got in a fight in the penalty box once. It was on all out brawl, and a guy by the name of Greg Neeld jumped up to kick me, and I twisted his foot and we went down between there and turned in to a brawl out on the ice.”
He described the disapproval of his then coach and future colleague, “Roger came down and told me to stop because we had to go cross ice to our bench [East side of building].”
“It was crazy to share the same penalty box. It was pretty ugly.”
According to unofficial Petes historian and member of the Peterborough Hall of Fame Pete Pearson, two penalty boxes were put in the rink shortly after.
A special team
Colin Campbell was a member of some of the Petes’ most successful teams, including the 1971-72 roster that saw an OHA championship and berth to the Memorial Cup final. That same year the Jim Mahon Award, give to a player exemplifying outstanding hockey skills and sportsmanship, was introduced in honour of the gentle giant of a defenceman whose life was cut short the summer before.
“Where I come from, you were in tobacco [farming] in the summer. I remember coming in from the farm one day and reading on in the Free Press, and a little story inside there in sports, ‘Petes winger electrocuted and it was Jim Mahon,’” described Coli.
Campbell recalled memories with his teammate from the previous season.
“We were both running against each other and we were in the last leg of the four by one hundred meter [relay]. We were sitting there waiting for the baton and big Jimmy, he was running, he was fast,” Colin declared with enthusiasm and emphasis on the shock of a man of Mahon’s size sprinting well.
Throughout the conversation, Coli insisted the impressiveness of his skill set and stature, “You can imagine fast, big, powerful. He would have been a first rounder.”
He went on to explain experiencing the weight of this tragedy alongside his teammates.
“I remember meeting the bus on the 401; we drove there and parked and the bus picked me up at 5am. Peterborough picked up all the players along the 401. Going to a funeral as a kid, you don’t know how to deal with it.”
Campbell insists the emotional pain faced by the team before their season cemented a resilient bond, “So sad, you start out and you’re trying to figure out life. We got tougher.”
What’s a compliment?
“What’s a compliment? Is it going to be backhanded or what?”
A joke Coli responded with when a dad recently approached him at a minor hockey rink, asking him if he could commend him on his work in the NHL.
The dad continued, “Me and my eight year old son love the game now, it’s fast, enjoyable. We just wait every night to watch playoff hockey.”
For Colin this is a moment worthy of celebration and tucking into the memory bank. During the 2004-05 lockout, his work’s mission was to decrease violence and in his own words, “make the game more fun to play, more fun to watch and return hockey to what it’s about.”
In the suspended season, Campbell formed a competition committee of players and general managers to reassess the rules and regulations guiding NHL hockey. Although the following year was marked by a considerable increase in penalty minutes, it has ultimately evolved the style of hockey and increased its speed.
“Our test is fans and players, we have to keep them happy, and media. We get tested the most, we get criticized the most. That’s our test so we have to withstand that.”
For Coli, the father’s comment marked a moment where he aced the test of building a professional hockey league with pond hockey values.
The collective memories forming Colin’s career and his excellent story telling would write a novel. The Tillsonburg talker has worn nearly every hat possible in the world of hockey, and possesses a resume summarized in moments reflective of the timeless trends of hockey like camaraderie and resilience and that of what is to come: an improved, faster game.