When Carlee Campbell was officially named the captain of Team White for the 2016-17 CWHL All-Star Game — I’ll be honest — I didn’t know a thing about her.
But the more I looked into it, the more I knew there was a story to tell.
The initial reaction is to call her ‘the John Scott of women’s hockey’ - and Natalie Spooner did, to laughs at the All-Star Draft. Campbell, like Scott, was a relative unknown winning a fan vote ahead of league MVPs, Olympic heroes and scoring champions. It’s an easy connection to make.
But that is where the similarities end.
Campbell wasn’t voted captain because of a fan movement to shake up or laugh at the All-Star game. She was already named to the game. Her votes came from people who knew her. Family. Friends. Co-workers.
And while John Scott wasn’t your typical NHL player - a guy known for fighting in a role that was finding its way more and more out of the game, Campbell is your typical CWHL player.
The spotlight on the CWHL goes to players who are on the national teams, on Olympic teams. But that’s not a typical experience. Of the 125 or so players in the league, the majority aren’t part of National programs. They have regular jobs, and play hockey for fun and for pride.
Campbell was faced with a decision that so many women’s hockey players face when they graduate: Do they give the game of hockey up in order to pursue a career or get their life settled? Or do they continue to play hockey while doing all of that?
She ended up getting her life in order. She completed an MBA. She worked for several companies, including MLSE, where she had skated on the Air Canada Centre ice, but never in front of over 8,000 people like she did on Saturday. She now works at Salesforce. She got married. She competed in CrossFit. And when life was re-settled, she decided to come back to hockey.
Six years later, she was back, playing with the top women’s hockey talent in Canada and now she was going to be captain for an All-Star game on an NHL rink.
But that alone did not make Campbell a great captain.
A few days after she was named captain, I had the opportunity to speak to her after her Toronto Furies played Les Canadiennes in Montreal. In that conversation, my first with her, she was funny, insightful, and humble.
At that point, she was still in a bit of shock. It hadn’t sunk in yet. She was getting ready to be in the spotlight and have the chance to draft players she admires. She was excited, and it seemed to me, abashed to be in that position.
Not in a bad way, but a bit shy that she was thrust into the spotlight. She was excited for the opportunity, but nervous for how she would be received.
I then spoke to her two more times, after the All-Star Draft, and again after her team won the game.
After the Draft on Friday night, it still hadn’t sunk in. She had just finished having a great night picking her players and interacting with all of the All-Stars and the emcee for the evening, her teammate with the Furies, Sami Jo Small.
Small, during her introduction said that the captains needed no introduction before quickly correcting herself with the fact that Campbell actually did need one.
Campbell, who graduated from Clarkson University six years ago, was part of the university’s first NCAA tournament berth. Four years later, after she had graduated, they won the championship.
She’s used to setting the stage for those to follow her, and on a bigger scale that goes for her role in the sport. She is fully aware - and embraces - where she is in the history of women’s hockey.
“I hope it’s a legitimate career for women,” Campbell said about where she hopes the sport ends up. “I’ve been telling people I’ve been born at the wrong time. All of us in that room, we were all just born at the wrong time. If you look at when the NHL started 100 years ago, their first 10 years were not anywhere near where the growth the CWHL has been. If you go back to the first 10 years of the NHL, if you were to ask them the same question in terms of salaries and where they’d be today, in terms of their players making millions of dollars, of course that was a hope in their mind and they’ve achieved that reality.
“In terms of us, and outlook, we’re at that stage where the NHL was 100 years ago. We’re in that hoping stage where we hope our players can get to that point. I personally believe one day it will. It’s actually in the hands of you guys and creating that exposure and showing people that hockey can be a source of entertainment for anyone in the world not just young hockey girls.
“Women’s hockey has to be appreciated in a different way than men’s hockey. It’s a totally different game. It has its benefits and sources of greatness in a different way than the men’s game does and that’s in the hands of you guys to help progress to the level the NHL is at.”
“I was born at the wrong time,” she repeated. “But I could help this crucial stage we’re in right now.”
That is why she was the perfect captain. Campbell provides a unique perspective that the established elite players just don’t have. Her reality is different than someone fighting tooth and nail for one of the 23 spots on Team Canada.
She isn’t doing this for fame. She isn’t doing this to make a national team roster.
She’s doing it for fun.
She’s doing it for the girls in the stands.
Campbell embodies the importance of leagues like the CWHL. Without such leagues only the elite players selected by national squads would get to hone their craft at a respectable level. Very good players like Campbell and so many others would be left in the cold.
CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress told Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic that Campbell can open a lot of eyes.
“That’s just the greatest thing about our league,” Andress said. “Somebody can go to school, play, go back to the workforce, and then realize how much they love our game, train and come back and make an impact and live a dream of being a captain of an all-star team.”
“It exceeded expectations,” Campbell said after the game on Saturday on her weekend. “For me, a lot of these girls I’ve never met and it’s astounding at how humble every single one of them are. A lot of them have Olympian status or national team status and it was crazy to me how much they accepted me — that no-name player — into the room and looked at me as a leader. That exceeded my expectations.
“I know I’m never going to get to live something like this again so I was taking it all in.”
This was the third media scrum I was in with Campbell. So, as the weekend had come to a close, I once again asked if it had sunk in.
She looked at me, and didn’t even hesitate.
“Yeah I think it’s sunk in now. We’ve spoken about this through the whole process, and yeah, it’s sunk in. It’s pretty cool.”