When Alex Campbell and Ethan Haider stepped on the ice in Hamilton, New York on February 26, it was the first time they’d done so for a game in 20 days.
That evening, the 2019 Nashville Predators draft picks and their Clarkson Golden Knights teammates skated away with a 3-2 win over their hosts, Colgate University. Haider stopped 24 of 26 shots, while Campbell went scoreless with three shots on net. Two weeks earlier, on February 9, Clarkson paused all university athletic activities due to COVID-19 rules. It was the latest snag in what has been a unique freshman season for Campbell and Haider. Clarkson has played just 22 games this year and only 14 were ECAC-scheduled matches.
“I have to admit, it’s definitely very, very different,” said Campbell last month after a Wednesday-night practice.
Despite their bizarre ECAC game schedule this season—which has featured just three other opponents—Campbell and Haider say they’ve benefitted from the structure of being a college athlete during the pandemic.
“I feel like our school and our program has done a good job of making sure that we’re able to have somewhat of a normal routine while still making sure everybody’s safe,” said Haider, picked 148th overall in 2019. “It’s been great having a consistent hockey schedule...you know when you got to be ready to work.”
“Practice is always at the same time, we work out at the same time,” added Campbell.
Away from the rink, the two Nashville prospects have continued to forge their friendship and new relationships with teammates. That friendship, stemming from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, has been a boost during their unusual year.
After his draft selection, Alex Campbell went to the United States Hockey League (USHL) to play for the Omaha Lancers, but his commitment to Clarkson came much earlier:
“I committed out of high school hockey back home. They were the first team that had ever talked to me and offered me right after a game. It was almost a no-brainer: they had the program I wanted, it was close to home, and [I loved] the direction the program was going.”
Before arriving in upstate New York, however, Campbell had stops in his native Quebec and Victoria of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) on top of his season in Omaha. That 2018-19 season with the BCHL’s Grizzlies helped boost his draft stock, playing alongside Colorado first-round pick, Alex Newhook. Newhook led that team with 102 points in 53 games and Campbell was second with 21 goals and 67 points.
Heading into his draft year, some were concerned that Campbell’s scoring touch was just a product of skating with a talent like Newhook. But Campbell has certainly put that talk to rest, leading Omaha (USHL) in scoring last season with 57 points in 46 games and adding 17 points in his first 22 collegiate hockey games.
“I know there were a lot of people talking about whether it was because of him or if I was helping him or he was helping me,” admitted Campbell. “I think we both helped each other out; I think we had a great team in that sense and just kind of clicked.”
But Campbell learned a lot playing alongside the now-Boston College sophomore who has 51 points in his first 43 NCAA games: “Every practice, he wanted to get better...every single shot mattered, every single pass mattered,” said Campbell. “He practiced with intent and it was insane. I learned a lot from that year and carried that throughout my next two years.”
For Ethan Haider, his commitment to Clarkson University was aided by a fellow NHL prospect.
“I actually had a pretty good connection here with a guy I skate with in the summer. He was our goalie here, Jake Keilly, and had a really successful college career,” said Haider. “I knew this is a program that could develop goalies. The coaching staff was awesome and really made me feel like they wanted me. Everything just worked out perfectly.”
Haider spent his draft year playing for the Minnesota Magicians of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) before heading to Sioux City in the USHL the same season as Campbell. But it was the 2019 NHL Entry Draft that brought these two together.
“We were both going to Clarkson, and we were both playing in the same league, so we definitely kept in touch,” said Campbell. “Every time we were out there playing against each other, there were some funny comments back and forth, and we just had a good time.”
“Especially when he was buzzing down on breakaways, I’d chirp him and tell him to calm down a little bit, like he was coming in too fast,” Haider quipped back.
Campbell’s response? “Yeah, I think he had me. I don’t think I scored on him all season.”
He’s right. Haider stonewalled him all year long.
Now, as the Golden Knights head into the ECAC Hockey playoffs with a bid to the NCAA tournament likely, that on-ice banter hasn’t stopped.
“In practice, we create a little competition and kinda get each other going,” said Campbell. “Whether I score or he makes a big save on me, we just give it to each other and it’s super super fun.”
Having a college teammate drafted into the same NHL organization isn’t something every prospect can enjoy, and Haider and Campbell know how lucky they are.
“I think it’s great just because we both know what to expect and what the organization expects out of both of us,” said Haider. “Having the same guys that are talking to us...just knowing what we need to get better at and work on...I think that’s awesome.
Campbell, when touching on his relationship with Nashville’s forward development coach, Sebastien Bordeleau, said, “They’ll clip our games and show us what to work on. [They] call us every couple of weeks just to see what’s up. If we need any help, they always insist on us calling them whenever we need them, whether it’s to re-watch one of our games or if we’re just having a hard time in any sense.”
Ethan Haider spoke to his experience with goaltending development coach Dave Rook: “He’s going through all the games I play, and he marks them all up. He has a good relationship with our goalie coach here, and they have a lot of similar viewpoints. We go through videos, and I have phone calls with them every week or so. It’s been a really good relationship so far.”
This season, both prospects have been a key reason for Clarkson’s success. Playing at both wing and center, Alex Campbell is tied for second in team scoring (4 goals, 17 points), 14 of his points have been primary ones scored at even-strength, and he’s recorded a primary point on 70.0% of Clarkson’s goals while he’s been on the ice. He’s tied for 15th among all freshmen nationwide in scoring.
Ethan Haider has taken control of the Clarkson net, appearing in 16 games this season and posting a 0.921 save percentage, saving 4.450 goals above average. In his first collegiate start last November, Haider gave up six goals on 20 shots before being pulled, but has bounced back with nearly every start since.
“After that game, the coaches and my teammates just reinstated that they still had confidence in me and knew that’s not what I was like in net,” said Haider. “Looking back now, that game was a great learning experience for me, knowing what I needed to work on and be successful in the college game.”
That’s what both Nashville prospects are looking forward to: more success in the college game. It’s clear both Campbell and Haider are diligent about improving their weaknesses and have excellent support staff in Potsdam and Nashville. For Haider, he’s focused on some technical aspects of his game: “My stances in different situations during the game, whether it’s power plays, rushes, end zone time... Just knowing what stance to use at what time to give me the best chance to be able to move around the crease and still be in a good spot to make saves and use my size to my advantage.”
For Campbell, he’s confident he can be a more dynamic playmaker: “I think just capitalizing on the opportunities we get. My line gets a lot of them, whether we’re missing the net or the goalie makes a nice save... So that’s something myself and my linemates have been working on a lot.”
Not only are Campbell and Haider looking forward to refining their college game, but they’re also looking forward to a more normal sophomore year, including fans in the building.
“Obviously it’s a very different atmosphere with no fans,” said Campbell. “It’s quiet when you score a goal or during a big shot or big hit or blocked shot...whatever it is, it’s pretty quiet, so we got to create a lot more energy on the bench.” Added Haider, “That’s what makes college hockey so much fun is the fans. I know we have a lot of support here in Clarkson and really great crowds, so it’s definitely tough not having that.”
Whether it’s a sophomore season with fans, travel to away games with new opponents, or more, Campbell and Haider are hopeful their friendship will help them down the road too.
“It’s a good relationship,” said Haider. “I think that going into development camp and, hopefully at some point, training camp, we’ll be really good buddies and have somebody to connect and relate with.”