For Grand Haven native Campbell Balk, that’s more than just a sports cliche. The 19-year-old hockey prospect currently weighs in at 5-11 and 175 pounds, but that wasn’t always the case.
“When I was freshman in high school, I was only 4-11 and hadn’t grown at all,” said Balk. “I struggled because I wasn't quick enough or strong enough. It was really tough, and I had my doubts as to whether I was going to make it at the varsity level.”
Balk took the criticism to heart and dedicated himself to a rigorous workout regimen and diet that — along with a growth spurt — helped him grow into a bigger, stronger and faster hockey player on the ice.
In his senior season at Grand Rapids Catholic Central, Balk recorded 37 goals and 32 assists to finish with 69 points on the season, which set a new school record. Balk led the Cougars to the Division 3 state title game, where they ultimately fell to Hancock, 4-2.
“My senior year at Catholic is when I really felt confident in myself,” Balk admitted. “I broke the school record for points in a season, got to the state title game, and felt like my game was rounding into form.”
While he is originally from West Olive, Balk decided the move to Grand Rapids Catholic Central was the right decision for his hockey career.
“His older brother, Keegan, went to Cranbrook (Kingswood) and Campbell wanted to go there, too,” said Campbell’s mother, Tiffany Balk. “Then, we had him visit Grand Rapids Catholic Central, and he absolutely loved it there.”
For Campbell, the decision was made easier by his relationship with head hockey coach Mike Slobodnik.
“They (GRCC) had a great tradition of hockey, I’ve played for Coach Slobodnik before during youth hockey and I also knew a lot of the guys on the team,” he added. “I knew I was going to really be pushed if I went there, and I knew it would be a good learning experience.”
Like most high school hockey prospects, Balk decided to travel east for his senior year of high school. He is currently attending Salisbury School, a private, all-boys boarding school in Western Connecticut, with his eyes set on a future in the North American Hockey League next year.
“My goal is to finish up my senior year here and play junior league hockey in the NAHL in either Texas or Wisconsin,” Balk said. “After that, I hope to play professional in Europe if I’m lucky enough to have that opportunity.”
The first step of that opportunity will come on June 6 at 2 p.m. when the NAHL entry draft begins. The draft will be streamed online at nahldraft.com and hockeytv.com. Balk will then have a clearer vision of his future and the path he will take to get there.
Regardless of whether he makes it professionally as a hockey player, Balk already has something to his name that many professionals never get to experience — a national championship.
As a member of the Mid-Fairfield U-18 hockey team, Balk helped the squad capture the 2017 Tier I USA Hockey Youth National Championship on April 10 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“It was unreal,” Balk said of the experience. “The exciting part of it all was just the pressure and the craziness involved. The championship game went into overtime, and everyone was on the edge of their seat. When I saw the puck go into the back of the net, I leaped over the boards and was the first one to the pile.
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey, and something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”
For Tiffany Balk, the experience might have been even more nerve wracking.
“I was coming back from spring break down in Mexico, so I wasn’t able to see the final period of of the semifinal game,” she said. “We were boarding the plane back during the final few minutes of play, and I wasn’t able to watch the ending.
“So, being the superstitious hockey mom that I am, I decided I would jinx them if I watched the national championship game. I was very nervous and didn’t know what to do with myself during that game, but it was so exciting when they did end up winning.”
Now that he’s seen the fruits of his labor come to fruition, Balk is hungry to continue to improve.
“Acceleration is my biggest focus right now,” he said of his current training focus. “I’ll be training a lot on the hockey treadmill, at the gym and just working on honing my skills, so that I can put myself in the best position to succeed at the next level.”
Balk, whose favorite hockey player to watch is Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, fell in love with hockey at a young age.
“When I was two-years-old, my older brother and I watched a friend of ours, Zach Nagelvoort, play hockey,” Campbell continued. “I started learning how to skate after that, and I just fell in love with the sport. Zach was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers back in 2014, so that was a really cool moment to see someone you know accomplish their dream like that.”
Campbell was influenced by his family to continue his pursuit of a hockey career.
“My grandpa would always take me to Griffins games when I was younger, and come to my games when he could,” he reflected. “When he couldn’t be there, he would send me texts before games. He always told me that I can do anything that I set my mind to. He would encourage me to be the best player that I wanted to be. He really gave me that attitude that I still bring to each game I play.
“My parents have been huge, too. They have sacrificed a lot to drive me all over the country. They’ve given so much of their free time and weekends to help their kids try and accomplish something they are passionate about. It’s not a cheap sport to play, either. They’ve invested a lot of money in us, too.”
With a strong supporting cast behind him, and a drive to succeed that’s been forged through trials and tribulations, Balk appears to be a sure-fire bet to light the lamp at the next level.
Josh VanDyke is the sports editor of the Grand Haven Tribune. For similiar stories and other breaking news, follow him on Twitter: @JoshVanDykeGHT.