While other ex-NHL enforcers toil in the AHL, Cam Janssen has take his trade to the U.K., soaking up old word history while still ‘doing his thing.’
By Jason Buckland In the English city of Nottingham, inside a white brick building that rests against the soft sandstone of Castle Rock, there is a pub named Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. It was founded in the 12th century, and while one of its newest patrons is no giant, the tavern is so old, its doorways and corridors recalling a time so far away, even he must duck his head each time he enters. Cam Janssen, all six feet of him, likes to sit there now, in his new city, the latest stop in a long and perhaps unlikely career. Last August, with no immediate pro suitors in the U.S. or Canada, the longtime Devils and Blues bruiser signed with the Nottingham Panthers of the British Elite League. He was uniquely suited for the destination. Janssen has always devoured tales of European history, and he can’t help but grab a stool in his new favorite pub and wonder about it all, to envision living in the Middle Ages, or what it would have been like to make it under the rule of King Henry VIII.
People come over and say hi to the tough American, a leader of the local pro hockey club that even Janssen can’t believe is so popular in town. The crowds at the Panthers’ arena howl for their team, up to 7,000 roaring fans packed on top of the rink for home games. Nottingham promotes Janssen as a star, the fans chant his name and the small-town boy from the Midwest can’t help but crack a smile. “I get a kick out of it,” he has to admit. Not that Janssen isn’t everything a rowdy English sports fan likes to root for. In the NHL, where he played 336 games over nine seasons, Janssen was a tough guy’s tough guy, a brawler and grinder content to drop gloves at the first sign he was needed. Sometimes, his fists were tools of survival. Janssen’s most infamous NHL moment came on March 2, 2007, in New Jersey, when his runaway shoulder caught the head of Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle and sent him spinning to the ice. It was a late blow, Janssen can concede now, and something he felt bad about. He had hurt Kaberle, who was laid up for three weeks after the hit. But almost as soon as medics wheeled onto the ice to deliver a stretcher to Kaberle, each Leaf seemed to be circling his calendar. The Devils would have to visit the Air Canada Centre just 18 days later. The chance for revenge was baked right into the NHL schedule. Janssen was only 22 then, in his second season in the league, though it was his job as enforcer to handle these kinds of dust-ups. On March 20, Toronto’s crowd cried for blood during the rematch, and sure enough, nine minutes into the first period, Janssen heard his name. He turned to see Wade Belak cutting a towering figure, 6-foot-5, 222 pounds, with no mistake in his eyes. Of course it would be Belak. Janssen always knew it would be him. The arena began to erupt. “It was so loud,” Janssen said, “ I almost had a heart attack.” Janssen skated toward Belak, his fists in the air. It was time to make this right.
Janssen is in a fine mood on this Friday evening late in November, happy to dig back into it all – the Kaberle affair, his improbable rise through the youth hockey ranks in rural Missouri and the latest turn in his long career. As other ex-NHL fighters labor in minor leagues across North America, Janssen decided last summer to seek employment elsewhere. He is just 31 but knows he is almost certainly done in the NHL. If it were up to him, he said, playing in the U.K. would be his final hockey destination. England is a long way from Eureka, Mo., not only in distance but in culture, too. “There’s not too many hillbillies (in the U.K.),” Janssen cracks, “if that’s what you’re asking.” He kids, but Janssen is very proud of his home, 45 minutes outside St. Louis. Eureka is the town he owes everything to. It’s where he played minor hockey at a time when the only career options for kids there seemed to be in construction or the military. In high school, those gifted enough played football. Failing that, they sure didn’t play hockey. But Janssen, under the counsel of his father, Dennis, and his mother, Amy, insisted the sport was for him. He first reached the OHL, yet his scoring (never more than seven goals in either of his three seasons) was not what turned heads. Instead, Janssen had an obvious grit to him. He was physical, always clearly among the toughest players on the ice, and he soon caught the eye of the Devils. New Jersey picked him in the fourth round (117th overall) of the 2002 draft. In 2005, after a season in the AHL, Janssen made his big league debut, proving almost immediately to be one of the hardest hitters in the game. He never put up many points, but he wasn’t really supposed to, either. Janssen was there – for five seasons (over two stints) with the Devils, four with his hometown Blues – to be physical, to put fear into his opponents, to embolden his teammates. He was a fighter, though he considered himself more than that. Janssen created space for teammates to skate freely, and that was a badge he wore proudly. “A guy like Cam,” said Jamie Langenbrunner, who played with Janssen in New Jersey, “takes care of all the stuff nobody wants to.”
Everybody has their favorite stories, though even Janssen knows today he is best recalled for that night back in Toronto, nine years earlier. Belak, who loomed nearly half a foot over Janssen, won the fight in defense of Kaberle, according to voters on hockeyfights.com, but Janssen got his shots, too. (Belak, in fact, dropped to the ice first.) Most importantly, Janssen had faced the music. It told his teammates he wouldn’t back down from anybody. “I went in there and stood my ground,” he said. “And you never really heard anything about it since.” A willingness to mix it up is now endearing him to new fans in the U.K. A good tilt, Janssen has found, translates just fine to British hockey. Janssen is playing more minutes in England and scoring more than he ever did in the NHL, but in many ways his role is the same as it has always been. “I still do my thing,” he said. “I’m still crushing guys. I’m fighting. I get my respect.” He continues, chuckling now: “I’m hitting guys pretty hard.” The checks did not take long to arrive. On Sept. 19, during one of Janssen’s first regular season games with the Panthers, David Clarke, Nottingham’s captain, looked on as Janssen lined up an opponent along the edge of the ice. Clarke was struck by the crunch made by plexiglass and boards. “The noise was just deafening,” he said. “Thank goodness that player turned (to see Janssen), ’cause if he hadn’t it would have been lights out.” Janssen has clicked with the Panthers as the patriotic American his British teammates, Clarke among them, love to rib him about. Perhaps he has fit in even better in Nottingham. Janssen has taken kindly to England, and the rich history across all of Europe has provided him an unending tapestry of churches and monuments to explore. In his off-time, Janssen and his fiancée, Kate, have already visited London and Paris, and any chance the Panthers get to play road games in Scotland makes Janssen grow fond. Edinburgh Castle, in particular, has captured his heart. Janssen has it made, he said, with the Panthers. The team pays his rent and taxes, and even provides a car to use. While the cheques are of course smaller than they were in the NHL, after all the team comps Janssen said his net compensation compares with what he could make in the AHL. He’d like to stay with the Panthers for four, maybe five seasons. However long his body holds up, he said. There are worse ways for he and Kate to live. He looks back toward the NHL, but Janssen doesn’t do so wistfully or with regret. He’s pleased with his time in the league, proud that he was able to play for so long in the role he held. “Not many guys made more out of the tools he had than Cam did,” said Peter DeBoer, who coached Janssen in New Jersey. His career churns on, an ocean away, but in the end he will be remembered for what he did best in the NHL. For Janssen, there will be no forgetting the hits, the fights, big Wade Belak coming fast toward him. “No one,” he said, “will ever be able to take those years away from me.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the February 15 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.