As is the case with a good number of his teammates, former Florida Panthers defenseman Steven Kampfer thought his chances of playing in the Olympics were long passed.
“Any person in the world would look at this as ‘holy crap, I’m going to the Olympics!’ It’s something you dream of as a kid,” Kampfer told Florida Hockey Now last week.
“Being on that world stage is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am going to relish the moment, go there with Gold on my mind and try to bring it home.”
On Thursday morning, Team USA played its first game of the Beijing Winter Games in a preliminary match — rolling to a 8-0 win against host China after a slow start. Kampfer had an assist off three shots and was plus-3 in the win.
This Olympics, Team USA — due to the omicron variant of Covid-19 — is icing a hybrid roster filled with older professional players like Kampfer who were either playing in the AHL or overseas along with a lot of collegiate talent.
It was not supposed to be this way, of course.
The NHL had tentative plans to shut down for much of February and allow its players to go to Beijing.
Team USA would have been loaded down with what amounted to an NHL All-Star squad — as would have Canada, Russia, Finland, etc.
But the NHL pulled out in December when its games started getting postponed due to a rise in Covid cases among its ranks and Team USA (along with just about everyone else in the field) went to Plan B.
The NHL-employed GM and coach were replaced by USA Hockey’s John Vanbiesbrouck and former Rangers coach David Quinn.
The roster, which had been in the works just in case, was finalized in short order.
Kampfer said his agent called and asked if he had interest in playing and that he was told on Jan. 2 that he would indeed be part of Team USA.
For Kampfer, who had been playing for Ak Bars in Kazan, Russia, of the KHL, this was an opportunity he not only could not turn down — but one he never realistically thought would ever come his way.
At 33 and a veteran of 231 NHL games with the Bruins, Wild, Panthers and Rangers, Kampfer is looking forward to finally get the chance to play for Gold.
“It has been incredible so far,” said Kampfer, who was with the Florida Panthers for parts of three seasons said.
“It is pretty surreal to be in this situation. I did not think this would ever be a possibility. Do you dream of it? Sure. You always wanted to but it never popped into my head as a reality until December.”
Kampfer makes his offseason home in Hollywood with his wife Tara (they met while he was playing for the Panthers) and young son Teddy.
They watch a lot of Panthers games when he is back home but now the attention will turn toward Beijing.
“When we watch hockey at home, (Teddy) thinks Par Lindholm is playing because he was with me in Boston and is with me in Kazan,’’ Kampfer said. “And if I am not in the room, he thinks I am on the TV playing. He loves it.”
When new Covid restrictions were announced by organizers in China, NHL players such as Jonathan Huberdeau began voicing their reluctance to be subject to such harsh rules.
An athlete who tests positive while in Beijing could be subjugated to being quarantined for up to five weeks in what we all assumed — and now know — are very spartan conditions.
Kampfer was in Covid protocol not long after arriving in Beijing but was quickly cleared. He was one of the lucky ones.
Still, before departing Los Angeles with the rest of his team — well, University of North Dakota standout Jake Sanderson was left behind after a positive Covid test — Kampfer said the chance to be part of the Olympics was bigger than any inconvenience.
Huberdeau, for his part, said basically the same thing when asked about it last week.
“When it’s all said and done, it’s not that bad,” said Kampfer, whose team had to take an 11-hour flight to Toyko with a four-hour layover and another four-hour flight to Beijing. Then came a marathon round of testing.
“What was released before, yeah, it seemed like so much stuff. But it’s not much different than what we’re dealing with every day. We get tested every day and we’re wearing a mask. That’s kind of the norm now. We’re used to it. But we’re with our team and everyone is excited and no one is going to do anything dumb because we don’t want to jeopardize a chance of playing in the Olympics.”
As one of the older players on the team, Kampfer is definitely looked to as a veteran presence in Beijing.
With two players from the University of Michigan on the squad, Kampfer joked that Wolverines coach Mel Pearson asked him to make sure the Michigan kids stay safe.
Kampfer, who played at Michigan as well as represented USA Hockey in numerous tournaments in his younger years, says he has known or played for the coaches and management with Team USA for years. There’s a comfort level there.
“As one of the older guys, everyone is looking at me when they have questions,” Kampfer said. “I have conversations with the coaches and relay information to the players. My role has changed a little bit.”
When it comes to the Florida Panthers, Kampfer said he still pays attention to what his former team is doing.
He spent parts of three seasons with the Panthers, including their Atlantic Division-winning season in 2016, but left when he wasn’t playing and asked for a trade.
Although he played in 46 games with Ak Bars, the remainder of the KHL season in in jeopardy of being completed and no one knows what the future holds.
Kampfer may just be coming back to South Florida and sticking around for a little while.
“My wife went to a game before I got back to Florida and I still pay attention them, still have friends on the team,” he said.
“They are having one heck of a year, doing a hell of a job. Coach Q turned things around and now Andrew Brunette is doing it. What Bill Zito has done has put Florida hockey on the map. They are doing great things.”
Before leaving Florida for Team USA’s mini-camp in California, Kampfer sat down and watched ‘Miracle,’ the Disney movie which tells the story of Team USA’s unbelievable run to the Gold in the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
Did that get him fired up?
“I don’t know how it wouldn’t get you pumped up,” Kampfer said. “Listen, we have a young team and we’re all excited to go.
“We have very high expectations for our group. The way we look at it is ‘Gold or bust.’ We have one opportunity at this. Let’s go out there, have some fun and bring it home.”
Former Florida Panthers at the Olympics
Jason Demers, Canada
Corban Knight, Canada
Steven Kampfer, United States
John Vanbiesbrouck, United States (GM)
Michael Frolik, Czechia
Michal Repik, Czechia
Nikita Guzev, Russia
Reto Berra, Switzerland
Denis Malgin, Switzerland
Harri Sateri, Finland
Lucas Wallmark, Sweden