By ALAN SHACKLETON
Jamie Campbell first got to know the Beach as a teenager coming in from his home in Oakville to visit a sports card shop on Queen Street East.
“I would save up my money from my paper route, jump on the GO train and then take the streetcar along Queen. I’d know I was close when I got to the old racetrack,” he said in a recent interview with Beach Metro Community News.
“It was a stop past that monstrosity of a grandstand that was the racetrack. And now, that’s the neighbourhood I live in,” said Campbell, 56, who has been a Beach area resident for more than 25 years now.
The sports card store Campbell used to visit as a teenager was at Queen Street East and Kenilworth Avenue. “That was the only place you could get the Topps American baseball cards. It was O-Pee-Chee baseball cards in Canada.”
Most readers will know Campbell as the host of Blue Jays Central on Sportsnet, and his long broadcasting connection with the Blue Jays. He called the play-by-play of the team’s games on Sportsnet from 2005 to 2009, and then took over as host of what was then the new pre-game show called Blue Jays Central.
What many might not know is he got his sports broadcasting start in the late 1980s and early 1990s working on Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) games at Maple Leaf Gardens.
“I was still in high school when I first applied to Hockey Night in Canda,” said Campbell.
“They said come on in and I dressed up in the only suit I had and sat down with two guys. They said they appreciated my enthusiasm, but they didn’t hire high school students. They said come back when I was older, so I got into broadcasting at Ryerson (now Toronto Metropolitan University) and I was one of the youngest people with Hockey Night in Canada.”
Campell said it was a great job for a young person who was as big a sports fan as he was, giving him the chance to meet and work with some hockey legends during a time of change at Hockey Night in Canada in the late 1980s.
“It was 1988 and the year before there was a big controversy as Dave Hodge (the host of Hockey Night in Canada games for many years) had thrown his pen while on the air.”
Looking back more than 35 years ago that hardly seems much when it comes to the way some sports (and news) broadcasters behave on air now, but Hodge’s throwing of the pen in 1987 and his on-air live criticism of CBC Sports (that produced Hockey Night in Canada) became a controversy across the country and he was soon out as host.
Hodge was replaced by a young Ron McLean who quickly established a popular partnership with former coach Don Cherry, that resulted in decades of the popular Coach’s Corner segment on Hockey Night in Canada before Cherry also found himself in trouble for on-air behaviour. Which is another story.
But back in 1988, one of Campbell’s main jobs on HNIC was to keep McLean and Cherry happy.
“They gave me a blue blazer and I had to do several things including getting whatever Ron and Don needed. I also had to hand the referees the beepers before the game that would let them know when it was time for TV commercial timeout,” remembered Campbell.
At intermission it was also his job to stop the player who was going to be interviewed on Hockey Night in Canada between the periods. Campbell said that was fine when it was a Leafs player as the HNIC studio was literally across the hall from the dressing room, but the visitor dressing room was at the end of the rink and the player being interviewed from the visiting team had to skate all the way up the ice and back to get to the studio. The players were not interviewed rink side like they are now.
Campbell also had the responsibility of helping to get each game’s Three Stars organized and ready to skate on the ice when their name was called. Again, the Leafs players didn’t mind it so much but visiting players generally had little interest in the Three Stars at Maple Leaf Gardens, said Campbell. And it was his job to tell the visitors they had skate out onto the ice for the Three Stars.
“And remember the Leafs were terrible back then so some nights all Three Stars were from the visiting team and I had to stop all of them. One night I had to tell (Wayne) Gretzky, (Grant) Fuhr, and (Paul) Coffey they had to wait. I’m telling Gretzky he has to skate on the ice for the Three Stars. I loved it.”
Off to Edmonton
Campbell also had other sports broadcasting experiences with the CBC as his career continued. He worked on the popular CBC Sports Weekend hosted by legendary broadcaster Brian Williams, and eventually caught on to a full-time position with the Edmonton CBC station in 1993.
“It was a chance to be on air, and I drove out to Edmonton in my Honda Prelude with everything I owned. I’d never been to Edmonton before.”
Campbell said the years in Edmonton were great, even though the glory days of the NHL Edmonton Oilers were already in the past by the time he arrived.
“The Eskimos (the CFL team now called the Edmonton Elks) were a championship team then, and the Triple-A baseball team was the Trappers and they were the farm team for the Florida Marlins. That was a fantastic place to be. The University of Alberta was right there, there were community colleges and high school sports,” he said.
“At the CBC, as the public broadcaster, we were more inclined to tell the stories that were local and about amateur sports and didn’t cover the pros as much. We weren’t close to being the ratings leader because we didn’t tell stories about the pro teams, but it was a great way to learn the craft of sports journalism,” said Campbell.
After four years, Campbell left Alberta in the same Honda Prelude he’d arrived in to take a job at CJOH in Ottawa. That station was run by CTV and its sportscaster James Duthie was about to leave to take a job with TSN. “They were in need of a sports commentator to replace him, and I had been wanting to come back to Ontario so the time was right,” remembered Campbell.
The sports scene in Ottawa was also hot in 1997 with the Ottawa Senators starting to emerge as a playoff team and the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx baseball team (farm team for the Montreal Expos) in town.
“There was Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, the Ottawa 67s and Gatineau Olympique (Major Junior hockey teams)…and we would also head down to do stories on the Expos in Montreal.”
An offer he could not refuse
Campbell said he saw himself spending the rest of his sports broadcasting career in Ottawa. But then he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse in 1998.
He was asked out for lunch by a man named Scott Moore, then a CTV and Sportsnet executive, who would go on to head up Sportsnet. Moore said he wanted Campbell to join Sportsnet in Toronto, which was still quite new on the scene. Campbell said he told him he wasn’t interested and he liked it in Ottawa.
“I had really just went to meet him for lunch out of courtesy,” remembered Campbell. “I said no thanks. I loved Ottawa and I loved my life there. He then handed me a napkin and a pen and told me to write my current salary. I did, and he took it and wrote a number on it that was triple what I wrote down…What Scott wrote was more than I had ever seen. I said to him, ‘I guess I’m going to Toronto.’”
The move back to the Greater Toronto Area was great for Campbell’s sports broadcasting career, but not his personal life.
He was on the show Sports Central with partner Mike Toth and then Brad Fay, both of whom had or still have connections to the Beach.
“It was a late-night highlight show, and it just killed the rest of my life,” said Campbell. “We would get out of the studio at 2 a.m. or later. I hated the hours.”
He was living on Wineva Avenue in the Beach at the time and the late hours were taking a toll. “I got to a point where I just couldn’t stand it,” he said.
At that time both Sportsnet and TSN operated out of the CTV studios in Agincourt, just west of McCowan Road on the north side of the 401.
There was intense competition between the country’s two sports-only broadcasters at the time, as there still is, said Campbell. “Both TSN and Sportsnet personnel would be getting their make-up on in the same room at the same time, and we weren’t wanted there.”
Campbell does not look back fondly on that time. “They were awful days really and I’m glad they’re over.”
Eventually Sportsnet was sold by CTV to Rogers and the show moved to Rogers studios at Jarvis and Bloor streets.
“I stuck it out and it got better I’m glad to say,” he said.
That was especially true once Campbell became more involved with Sportsnet’s coverage of Blue Jays baseball, a staple of the broadcaster before it went on to obtain Hockey Night in Canada rights from the CBC in 2013.
He enjoyed travelling around North America calling baseball games as the Jays’ play-by-play voice, and Campbell said he was disappointed when Buck Martinez was tasked to take over those duties in 2010. However, Campbell focussed on the positives in the situation that saw him moving to the pre-game show including the impact to his home life in the Beach and his young family.
“It was definitely a move that benefitted my family life.”
He has two teenage sons, Kaden and Jack. Raising them with his now ex-wife is his main priority, said Campbell.
And living in the Beach is the perfect place for both kids and adults, he said.
“I just love it. The line of work I’m in, I can’t own a cottage but living in this neighbourhood is like being at one. The lake is right there, the Boardwalk and you just dip your feet in the lake…”
He said the Beach is his favourite part of the city hands down.
So things were close to ideal for Campbell, and then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived (along with cancer diagnosis less a year later) and his life was turned upside down.
He called the revelation that he had Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) an “oops diagnosis.”
Campbell had taken a blood test for reasons that weren’t related to him feeling run down or that he had any kind of medical condition in early January of 2021.
“It was Jan. 11, 2021. I had gone to see my physician a week earlier but not to scan for cancer, it was for a check-up and a blood test,” he remembered. “I saw the doctor’s name on my phone and wondered why she was calling…She told me it appeared I had Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia… I didn’t even know what that meant…the only word I heard was leukemia.”
He said it was a frightening experience, especially since the doctor told him to go to an Emergency Room immediately to get it confirmed. And indeed Campbell had CLL.
However, he said he soon learned some facts about CLL that helped to reassure him.
“It’s terrifying to get a phone call like that, but it didn’t take long for me to be reassured by people that would know that the treatment for this type of leukemia is very good,” said Campbell. “I remember somebody saying: ‘If you have to get leukemia, this is the one you want to get.’”
CLL is a blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow and is considered to be the most common form of leukemia in adults who live in the Western world. In some patients it progresses very quickly and in others it moves more slowly.
Canadian hockey legend Paul Henderson was diagnosed with CLL in 2009 and has been undergoing treatment for it since 2013. Henderson turned 80 in January of this year.
Campbell said Henderson was an inspiration for him as he looked to others who had CLL, and he learned more about it and its survival rate.
“It was a year and two months after I got the diagnosis that I had to begin treatment. It’s very slow moving. You don’t actually treat it until it needs to be treated,” said Campbell.
Making his cancer diagnosis public
Campbell said he never planned to keep his diagnosis secret, but wanted to wait until treatment began before making it public in March of last year.
“When it came in March of 2022 we were weeks away from Opening Day. Before that there had been no need to make it public,” he said. “But now I had lymph nodes exploding in my armpits. I was fatigued. I was getting night sweats. I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it out of bed for Opening Day, so I figured the first chance I get to publicize it I should. Just in case people were to turn on their TV and I’m not there because I couldn’t get out of bed.”
Campbell said he felt it was important to let people know what was going on to help them learn about CLL and what it means to those diagnosed with it.
“If I really can live with this thing for 20 or 30 years, maybe I should be a beacon for other people who would get it…For men and women who get this diagnosis, it won’t take them long to figure out they can flip on their TV and see a guy who was living visually with it… I could use my platform as a Blue Jays broadcaster; they would see me showing up and doing well.”
He pointed out that fellow Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez was doing the same thing after being treated for neck and throat cancer.
Campbell said in many respects, the diagnosis of CLL and his journey of treatment for it has been “a weird blessing.”
It has made him appreciate life, the importance of the relationships you have with others and how you treat people.
“This form of cancer, for me, it has altered my life in a positive way. I see life differently and I appreciate it more…I look back and I think I’ve been given a gift of greater perspective and the importance of maximizing the time I spend with people and seeing all experiences more clearly.”
But even before that, during the first year of COVID-19 and prior to his diagnosis, Campbelll was already reaching out to baseball fans across the country who were missing the broadcasts of the Blue Jays games and feeling isolated.
“Even before the pandemic I’d be in places across this country and people would come up to me and say ‘Oh, my grandmother loves you.” I always used to say “You got a cell phone? Let’s call her.’ And in an instant I’m on the phone with someone I’ve never met and they’re thrilled because they’ve been watching me for years,” he said.
Campbell said he knew fans would be missing not just watching the games being played during the pandemic but everything around the television broadcasts including Blue Jays Central.
“The people who would be really greatly impacted during 2020 were seniors and people who were isolated. They would be people who would be vulnerable from a health perspective so the risk of them trying to stay social was much greater than for someone younger. I also knew that a sizeable portion of our audience for baseball was 65 and older.”
Many of those fans would be life-long followers of the Jays, jumping in right from the team’s very first season back in 1977 and growing with them towards the back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. “Baseball got that hold on them,” said Campbell.
Keeping in touch with fans during the pandemic and helping others
He said with the help of Rogers he set up a second phone at home to reach out to as many fans as he could during the pandemic. “I put something online and said if you’re parents or grandparents are feeling isolated, forward me the name and phone number and I’ll call as many as I can.”
He said the Jays broadcasts were shut down too and the calls were a “debt of gratitude” to the fans as it also helped keep him engaged with the community that is Blue Jays fans across Canada.
“It was one of those things where you start a little project and it ends up paying you back. I got on the phone with people from across the country…
“I spoke to a guy on Vancouver Island who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour 12 years ago and told he had four months to live, and there I was talking to him. I talked to a woman in Saskatchewan who was 104 and had also gone through the Spanish Flu pandemic.”
He also spoke with a lot of people in Nova Scotia after the mass shooting that took the lives of 22 people on April 18 and 19 of 2020.
Campbell spoke with the children of a couple who had been killed in the shooting – Greg and Jamie Blair who were big baseball fans. He was able, with the help of the Jays, Rogers, West Jet and others, to bring their children to a Jays game once the team was back playing in the Rogers Centre in 2022.
“I was talking to their oldest son, Tyler, and when we were on the phone he told me one of the things on his father’s bucket list was to be able to take the whole family, all four kids, to a Jays game,” said Campbell. “I said ‘You know what? I’m going to fill that bucket for you.’”
That showed Campbell once again that he could use the power of his high profile as a national sports broadcaster, and the connections that come with it, to find ways to help others.
One of the ways he does that now is by auctioning off the scorecards he fills out while covering Blue Jays games. The proceeds have gone to a number of groups including women’s and family shelters in remote or under-serviced areas of Canada.
“I was never going to keep those scorecards, it was just something I had always done while watching games. But I put them online and people were interested in purchasing them. Normally I would have just put them in the blue bin, but I’ve found it helps raise money and can get people out of what can be terrifying circumstances..It can make things a little better for them and get them to a place of safety.”
Campbell said the scorecards people purchase also come with a hand-written letter of appreciation from him thanking the buyer for their support of the organization he donates the money to. “I make sure I sit down and write a personalized letter of thanks to them.”
For more info on Campbell, and how to bid on the scorecards to help women’s and family shelters in communities across Canada, and other charitable organizations, please visit his Twitter page at @SNETCampbell