UNH's Campanale gets call

Last modified: Thursday, April 07, 2011
The first call went to mom. The next was to dad, and then his two brothers. Each was met with the same reaction.

'Nobody believed me,' said University of New Hampshire senior Matt Campanale.

Believe it.

Signed to an amateur tryout contract with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League a week ago, Campanale made his NHL debut last night for the New York Islanders against the Boston Bruins. The 25-year-old defenseman played over eight minutes and picked up two penalty minutes in a 3-2 loss to the B's.

'It was a tremendous opportunity that doesn't come along too often,' said Campanale, who signed for one game with the Islanders under emergency conditions because of injuries to blue liners Jack Hillen and Milan Jurcina. 'Playing in Boston makes it pretty special since it's not far from UNH. It couldn't have worked out any better.'

It's certainly been a whirlwind week and a half for Campanale. On March 27, he packed up his UNH gear for the final time after his Wildcats lost to Notre Dame in the Northeast Regional final in Manchester. Three days later he was playing in his first professional game with the Sound Tigers. In a Tuesday morning matinee he recorded his first professional shot on goal in the Sound Tigers' 6-2 victory. It was that afternoon that he was told he'd be skating with the Islanders at TD Garden.

'It's been absolutely crazy,' Campanale said. 'First we lose in Manchester and then Bridgeport contacted me, and now I have two AHL games under my belt. And now I get to play against the Bruins. It's been the wildest week of my life.'

Surprisingly, the transition from the college game to the professional game wasn't as substantial as even he thought it would be.

'I thought it would be a lot different, but speed wise I didn't think there was a huge gap between what I was playing at in the college level and what I've seen here (with Bridgeport),' said Campanale, who was a +2 in Tuesday's game with Bridgeport. 'I think one of the biggest differences between the two is the strength of the guys playing. It's a lot harder to bump guys off the puck here and their hands are pretty incredible.'

As wild and exciting as it's been, one thing he did worry about was making sure he finished school. Less than two months from earning a bachelor's degree in business from UNH, Campanale was whisked away from campus and into the professional ranks. And while it's been a 'dream come true' for the native of Chester Springs, Pa., he wants to ensure that nearly four years of hard work isn't thrown out the window.

'Playing professional hockey, playing in the NHL is something every hockey player dreams of,' Campanale said, 'but I came all this way and I want to earn that degree. I guess it worked out okay, though, because Bridgeport isn't going to make the playoffs, so I'll be done Sunday and basically only miss a week and a half of school.

'I've explained my situation to all my teachers and they have been really understanding of my situation and have been really helpful to make sure I don't fall behind.'

Camapanle has made a habit of breaking down barriers. At UNH he went from a non-scholarship freshman walk-on to a full-ride assistant captain by his senior year, serving as the team's most consistent and reliable defenseman with a team-leading +25 rating this season.

With three goals and 21 assists in 106 career games with the Wildcats, there's nothing flashy about his game. He has good hands, an accurate shot, but more than anything he doesn't put himself in situations that are going to get him or the team in trouble.

On his very first shift last night, he looked nervous. Opening up to collect a basic pass (which he probably did a hundred times at UNH) behind the Islanders net, Campanale mishandled the pass and the puck bounced off his skate and out in front of the net for a scoring chance for the Bruins. He didn't see the ice again for over 10 minutes, but kept things simple when he did get time.

'I felt I competed really well in the two games with Bridgeport,' Campanale said. 'I don't go out of my way to mess up and make it look bad. I just kind of did things the way I did things at UNH and I guessed it's worked out for me.'

The only mistake Campanale did make was something he could have gotten away with at UNH. In an attempt to get out of trouble, Campanale tried to flip the puck out of the zone midway through the third period. The puck never touched the glass, though, and he was called for a delay of game penalty. But the Bruins weren't able to capitalize.

It wasn't a goal. It wasn't an assist. But Campanale did get his name on the scoresheet, and, whether he gets another shot or not, that should be all the proof his family needs to believe he played in the NHL.

(Gavin Faretra can be reached at 369-3340 or gfaretra@cmonitor.com.)