BEIJING – When Steven Kampfer was a student-athlete at the University of Michigan he had a firsthand look at what it takes to be great. While he and his Wolverine teammates were practicing at the historic Yost Arena, across campus Michael Phelps was swimming laps at Canham Natatorium.
Seeing the dedication that fueled Phelps to become the most decorated Olympian of all time gave Kampfer a glimpse into what it takes to be great.
“Seeing how hard he practiced was incredible and motivated me even more because you could see what it takes to be great,” Kampfer said of the 23-time Olympic gold medalist.
Now that Kampfer is himself an Olympian, he is excited to see some of those same qualities that has made the U.S. squad the toast of the tournament. After three games of preliminary round play, this is a team has surprised everyone but themselves in winning Group A and earning the top seed heading into the knockout portion of the tournament.
Kampfer credits how quickly this team has come together away from the rink with the success they’ve had on the ice. With a blend of wide-eyed collegiate players and savvy veterans like Kampfer, they have managed to develop a winning identity that has made them so tough to beat.
“We’ve done a good job of getting to know each other on and off the ice and guys’ tendencies,” Kampfer said after a gritty 3-2 victory over Germany.
“We realize that we all have plenty of skill, but it’s the speed and the work ethic that really brings it together for all of us.”
Facing a little adversity will do that for a team. For the second straight game the U.S. fell behind early but battled back thanks to a relentless forecheck, great goaltending and timely scoring.
Once again it was someone else’s turn to step up and lead the offensive charge. Tonight it was Kampfer along with collegians Matt Knies and Nathan Smith who all found the back of the net for the first time in the tournament. That was more than enough offensive support for 19-year-old goalie Drew Commesso, who earned his second victory in as many starts.
After the Germans took the lead just two minutes into the game, Kampfer’s power play goal helped swing the momentum back in the American’s favor.
“The Germans were a big, physical team. They played to their strengths really well of getting to the inside on the forecheck. That was something that we knew they were going to do,” Kampfer said.
“When we moved our feet we got out of pressure really quick, but when we stopped skating and slowed it down, we let them play to their identity. It’s something that we have to learn going forward knowing that we might possibly play them again.”
That is a distinct possibility as the Germans will face Slovakia in the qualification round with the winner drawing the top-seeded Americans.
In the meantime, the U.S. will gladly take the extra day. After such a physical game, any down time is good for soothing the aches and pains that comes from playing three games in four days.
“Having that extra day is something that we strived for when we first got here,” Kampfer said. “It gives guys a day rest and a little extra time to prepare because when the puck drops in a couple days, that the time that everything starts to matter and we got to put our best foot forward.”
For the 33-year-old Jackson, Mich., native, playing in the KHL this season gave him an opportunity to put his best foot forward by allowing him to play to his strengths as an offensive defensemen.
Always one willing to jump into the offensive rush, playing with the Ak Bars Kazan has allowed him to rediscover a part of his game that seemed to be missing the last few years of bouncing around with several NHL teams and their AHL affiliates.
“I just got the opportunity to get back to how I was playing early in my career,” said Kampfer, who won the Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Boston Bruins. “It’s been a blessing for me to go over there and play and start having that offensive flare again but also play the big minutes and helping teams win.”
Kampfer was on a road trip with his team when they landed in Siberia and was greeted by several text messages from his agent who said that U.S. general manager John Vanbiesbrouck was trying to reach him.
With a number of friends still in the NHL, Kampfer had the inside scoop that the league was probably not sending players to compete in the Olympics. Still, he never fully expected to get the call until it finally came.
Now that he’s here, he’s enjoying not only the Olympic experience but having the opportunity to play the firewagon brand of hockey that suits his skill set.
“I think we’re tenacious,” Kampfer said. “You look at the young guys and they’re all hungry. All of us are hungry, whether it’s the guys that have played before or are looking to play. Everybody has something to prove and they want to show everybody that we have a great team, and that USA Hockey did a great job of picking us.”