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Travelin' Man

Dec 16, 2022
Written By: Randy Cleves

Defenseman Steven Kampfer has watched his career come full circle with his return to his home state of Michigan.

Story by Mark Newman / Photo courtesy Cleveland Monsters

Steven Kampfer is the very definition of a journeyman – he’s played here and there and almost everywhere in between. During his 13-year career, the veteran defenseman has seemingly made more stops than an Amazon driver in the middle of the holiday season.

In the NHL, he has played for the Boston Bruins, Minnesota Wild, Florida Panthers, and New York Rangers. In the AHL, the list of his past employers includes the Providence Bruins, Houston Aeros, Iowa Wild, San Antonio Rampage, and Hartford Wolf Pack.

Last season, he played for Ak Bars, a KHL team based in Kazan, the largest city in the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia, which was one of the host cities of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and was once captured by Ivan the Terrible.

In a career that has had more twists and turns than a Formula One circuit, Kazan would prove to be more than just a detour in what has been a memorable trip through the world of professional hockey.

Kampfer, who has learned the value of always keeping a suitcase ready to roll, had decided that he had reached a crossroads in his career after he had found his way back to the Bruins organization for a second time.

Tired of the incessant uncertainty that comes with being the seventh or eighth defenseman on a roster, he was ready for a fresh start.

Following surgery to repair his wrist in May 2021, Kampfer sat down with his agent, Shawn Hunwick, to discuss what destination might be next.

“It’s mentally taxing, having to go every day and not knowing when your next game is going to be,” said Kampfer, who has spent as much time – if not more – out of the lineup as he has spent in one. “It’s not like I had gotten pigeon-holed, but when you get stuck behind some really good players, you realize something needs to change.

“It’s not the fault of the players ahead of you – they’re playing well, after all – and it’s not the fault of the organization, because they want to watch their young kids develop. So you mostly wait. I knew that was going to be the role I was going to be put into wherever I went.

“My agent said, ‘Hey, why don’t we look at the KHL for a year with one understanding – let’s see if we can reinvent your career and have some fun playing hockey. You can re-establish yourself, show everyone that you can play a two-way game, and do it at a very high level.’ And so we did that.”

Before heading to Russia, Kampfer sought out the advice of acquaintances who had played there. Among the players he contacted was Andy Miele, the former Griffins center (2014-15, 2015-16) and Detroit native who had played the previous two seasons in Novgorod.

“Andy is a good friend of mine. We grew up and played together our entire childhood,” Kampfer said. “I was intrigued [about the KHL] but I wanted to hear his thoughts about the experience. I knew I could trust what he had to say and he opened up my eyes to what I might see.

“The best thing Andy told me, and it really stayed with me, was this. He said, if you’re expecting things to be one way when you get over there, you’re going to be stuck with the thought, ‘Why is this not like the National Hockey League?’ But if you come in with an open mind and realize that there will be things you can’t control, that [expletive] is going to go sideways, you will be OK.”

Kampfer was better than OK. He was the top-scoring defenseman on his team, finishing with career-best totals in goals (11) and points (30) in just 46 games.

“The way we – myself and the five other imports and their families – were all treated by Kazan was first class,” he said. “I cannot say enough about the organization and the people there. They treated us very well. They treated us like we were family and they made sure that we were always looked after.

“It was a lot of fun to go over there, not only to learn a different culture but also to play a style of hockey that was a lot more defensive than I thought it was going to be. Very rarely did you get a game where the score is 6-5. Very often games were decided by a 3-2 or 3-1 score. The games were very tight-checking, so you needed your top offensive players to produce on a nightly basis. If they didn’t, you were probably losing.”

Kampfer might have contemplated a return to the KHL for this season, but sitting in the stands during the opening round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs last May convinced him otherwise.

“My wife and I and our son went to a Panthers playoff game against Washington in Florida, where we live in the summer,” he recalled. “We went with a group of friends and I was sitting with my son and my wife was sitting with a friend in a different area. About 12 minutes into the game, I sent her a text that said, ‘I can still play.’ That was the full discussion. I had watched enough to know that I could still play here. I called my agent the next day. I was coming back.”

Discussions led them to Detroit, which brought back a lot of fond memories for Kampfer, who was born in Ann Arbor, grew up in Jackson, and was a member of the Little Caesars AAA minor ice hockey team that often played at Joe Louis Arena.

“I used to see [Steve] Yzerman, [Sergei] Fedorov, [Nicklas] Lidstrom, and the Grind Line guys back in their heyday of 1996-97 to ’02,” said Kampfer, who wore No. 5 in honor of his hero (Lidstrom). “When I started playing professionally, I used to skate at the Joe with all those guys and it was weird to go from looking up to these guys to where they were now my peers. For me, it was like a pinch me moment.

“I grew up watching Lidstrom and now I was playing against him.”

So Kampfer’s return to Detroit was a long time coming. “I’ve been a lot of places, not often by choice, but I’ll go wherever I can play,” he said. “I’m fortunate to be back in Michigan, my home state, and to be playing for the organization that I grew up watching as a kid.

“It’s exciting to be back and see my career come full circle, but it’s also kinda weird to be thinking about those early situations 14 years later. Now half of those guys are my boss [the Red Wings’ front office headed by Yzerman includes Lidstrom, Kris Draper, and Kirk Maltby, among others].”

The foundation for Kampfer’s professional career started in Michigan, where he played college hockey for the legendary Red Berenson.

“I can’t say enough good things about Red,” he said. “Honestly, he was so instrumental in not only developing me as a player but also teaching me how to become a professional, both on and off the ice, whether it was working out, practice habits, or other things like that.

“Red was an old-school college coach but you understood that he was developing you for the pro game. He wanted all of us to succeed not only on the ice but also off the ice, whether it was academically, in business, or wherever. He wanted you to be the best version of yourself.”

Kampfer recalls that he came into his sophomore season out of shape after having an average year as a freshman. “I wasn’t ready to go and Red was the first one to get me back into shape and push those buttons to make me better,” he said. “Eventually, he knew what I could do and I knew what he wanted of me and we had the kind of relationship where we could talk about things.

“I could go into his office and sit down and he would tell me things good, bad or indifferent. I’ll never forget the time when I was in my second pro season with Boston and we were in town playing Detroit. When he saw me the next day, he said, ‘There’s no way that you can think that you played well last night.’

“Comments like that, especially coming from him, always meant a little more, because he played such an important part in my development and my turning into a pro. When he speaks, you listen. And you listen to everything he has to say.”

He encountered another strong coach when he came into the Bruins organization, where he played for former Griffins head coach Bruce Cassidy, first as an assistant coach in Providence at the beginning of his career and later as the head coach in Boston during Kampfer’s second stint with the Bruins.

“Tactically as a coach, working with Xs and Os, Butch is by far one of the best coaches that I’ve ever had,” Kampfer said. “He’s very good at working the ebbs and flows of games. His in-game adjustments are fantastic. If guys are going, he keeps them going, if they aren’t, he adjusts accordingly. Strategically, he’s just very good. He knows what he is doing.”

Kampfer is less complimentary of the coach’s handling of his place on the roster. He winces at his memory of the 2018-19 season with the Bruins.

“We played two nights before Christmas in Carolina and I scored a goal, but then I didn’t play again for nearly three months,” he said. “I had one conversation with him the whole time. I completely understand that there are many different elements that someone in his position has to judge. You have your superstars, your regulars, and you have guys you’re trying to get going. My only fault with the situation is that I wanted him to tell me where I stood. ‘Tell me what you want from me.’ At least have a conversation. Tell me what’s going on. I shouldn’t have to figure it out myself.”

But Kampfer was no stranger to the silent treatment, Over the years, he has encountered almost every trick in the book. He has come face-to-face with more situations than he cares to count.

“I tell guys all the time, ‘Listen, people will sit there and say that they understand what you’re going through,’ but I have literally lived it for a long time,” he said. “I can tell you every emotion you’re going to feel. If you ever want to talk about something, please come talk to me. I’ve lived it all.”

Kampfer has grown accustomed to the waiting – waiting to be told he’s up or down, waiting to learn whether he’s in or out of the lineup, waiting to find out if this is the night he finally gets back on the ice, waiting to find out if he’s been traded again. In the words of Tom Petty, “the waiting is the hardest part.”

When you’re a healthy scratch night after night – a situation all too familiar to Kampfer over the years – you can pout or sulk or complain, but it won’t change anything. As the maxim goes, “don’t worry about the things you can’t control.” He prefers to stay optimistic. His opportunity will come.

“It’s not the coach’s fault,” Kampfer said. “The coaches don’t sit there, saying ‘Be ready, be ready.’ Honestly, I think the situation is more mentally taxing than it is physically. Mentally, we’re all athletes. We want to compete. We all want to play. And then, you find out you’re not. The worst thing you can do is try to do too much.”

Kampfer remembers a conversation he had early in his professional career that helped change his perspective.

“When I was going through all this for the first time, Don Sweeney, the GM in Boston, pulled me aside and said to me, ‘If you’re going to be successful in playing this role, you have to become the most predictable player possible. When you’re coming in, every guy has to know what you’re going to do with the puck. Making the simple plays is going to be how you’re going to be successful.”

Kampfer had to show he could be a dependable defenseman. Nothing flashy, in other words. Coaches had to feel confident that they could drop him into the lineup at any time and they could know exactly what they were going to get – not a game changer, but a consistent performer who wouldn’t disrupt the team chemistry.

“When you’re not in the lineup for six or seven or eight games at a time and they’re expecting you to jump in, it’s tough to stay in game shape when you’re not playing. And oh, by the way, it’s going to be even more difficult because things are moving a bit quicker than they were in that 30-minute practice that we just had. So I took his advice to heart. The easiest solution is to make the simple play.”

Kampfer has had enough drama in his career. When you’ve been traded five times in your career, you’ve faced enough turmoil, so there’s no sense in creating more.

In 2010, Kampfer was traded to Boston by the Anaheim Ducks, who had originally drafted him in the fourth round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, for a fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft.

In 2012, Boston sent Kampfer to Minnesota in exchange for defenseman Greg Zanon.

In 2014, Florida acquired Kampfer and minor leaguer Andrew Yogan from the New York Rangers for forward Joey Crabb.

In 2016, Kampfer was traded back to New York by Florida for the services of defenseman Dylan McIlrath, who would be traded again a few months later to Detroit. (The Red Wings assigned McIlrath to Grand Rapids, where he helped the Griffins win their second Calder Cup championship in 2017).

In 2018, Kampfer was back in Boston after the Bruins sent enforcer Adam McQuaid to New York for Kampfer and a pair of picks in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

“It never gets easier,” he said. “You can look at a trade two ways. You can look at it as ‘that team doesn’t want me anymore’ or you can look at it as ‘here’s a team now that wants me.’ It comes down to your perspective. It’s all about your mindset. You can be like, ‘Woe is me.’ Or you can be, ‘Here’s a new opportunity – make the most of it.’

“A couple of the trades I asked for and a couple I never saw coming. I never expected to go back to Boston, but it was a blessing in disguise. I loved being in Boston and being part of the Bruins organization again.”

Kampfer is thankful for getting the opportunity to work with assistant coach Kevin Dean, who was in charge of the Bruins’ defense.

“He was really good to me,” Kampfer said. “We sat down and watched a lot of video together and we talked. He was like, ‘I want you to play as much as you can, but it’s going to be dictated by how quickly you can move the puck and how much you want to move your feet. If you want to stand there and not move your feet, things are not going to work out for you.’

“That’s been the story of my career. If I don’t move my feet, I’m going to make bad plays. I learned what I needed to do to be successful.”

Feeling melancholic or moping all day long, he learned, does not improve one’s circumstances. He learned to stay positive because there are worse things in life than being a depth defenseman.

He had to look no further than his sister Kristin, who is two years older. Born with congenital heart disease, she has had 29 major surgeries in her life, starting with open-heart surgery only a few days after she was born. “I have not a single thing to complain about it,” he said. “After seeing what she’s gone through, you realize that you can complain as much as you want but there are a lot worse things that you could be complaining about.”

His wife, Tara, and three-year-old son, Teddy, also have a congenital heart defect, which led him to opt out of the NHL’s return to play in the summer of 2020 during the height of the coronavirus.

“Nobody knew what COVID-19 was or what the pandemic was all about, so we were fortunate that the Boston Bruins organization was very understanding about our situation,” he said. “We were worried about the complications that COVID-19 could cause and Boston – from the management to the coaches to my teammates and the staff – everyone was very understanding.”

Fast forward 18 months and the same coronavirus, albeit the omicron variant, had forced Team USA to assemble a hybrid roster of collegiate talent and older pros for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Kampfer, who was having a career year for Ak Bars in Russia at the time, knew this was an opportunity that he could not let pass, especially at the age of 33.

“Any chance that you get to put on the USA jersey is a tremendous honor,” he said. “You never think playing in the Olympics is possible. I was fortunate that the NHL didn’t go and I happened to be having a good year, so thankfully I got chosen. We obviously came up short of our goal [the U.S. finished fifth] but it was a great time.”

It was a career highlight for Kampfer, who was a member of the 2011 NHL champion Boston Bruins team during his rookie season. He was given a Stanley Cup ring, but his name is not on the trophy because he played in 38 regular-season games, three short of what is required to have his name engraved. The Bruins petitioned for his inclusion, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman denied the request.

Kampfer had missed eight games with a concussion earlier in his rookie season, which ended when he suffered a minor knee injury right before the playoffs. “Even though I fell three games short, I didn’t understand Gary’s reasoning for why I wasn’t included. I still don’t understand it a dozen years later, but it wasn’t my decision. I’m just happy for all the guys whose names are on it.”

Eight years later, Kampfer thought he might get another chance. He played in Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, but the Bruins fell one game short when the St. Louis Blues ended the third-longest championship drought in league history by winning Game 7 by a 4-1 score in Boston.

Now Kampfer will gladly do his part to help bring another Calder Cup to Grand Rapids.

“I’m at an age where I’m closer in age to the coaches than I am to the other players,” he said. “That’s when you’re like, ‘Ok, here we are.’ Let’s just enjoy this because you don’t know how much time you have left. The idea is for me to be one of the veterans who can show the younger guys how to be a professional – how to get ready mentally and physically, how to show up at the rink day in and day out and be a pro.”

And while there’s a temptation to let talented players figure things out for themselves, Kampfer believes it’s good to surround Griffins captain Brian Lashoff with guys like himself to show what it takes to win. Hockey is a team sport and it takes more than one or two guys to claim a championship.

“We have had individual success, but collectively, we all can be better,” he said. “The coaches have done a great job of showing us where we can be better and the young guys have been receptive to learning. As the older guys, we have to pull the rope and show the younger guys that this is what it’s going to take.

“If we want to right the ship, we all need to pull in the same direction.”

Kampfer is determined to make the most of another shot at a championship.

“You could ask most guys and they might say that I can be kinda grumpy in the locker room,” he said. “I have a three-year-old running around the house, so I might be tired. But the sun comes up and it’s a new day. You’re at the rink, playing a sport for a living. So let’s just enjoy this.”