There are athletes who dedicate their lives to a sport – spending every waking moment mastering the negligible intricacies of their chosen craft. There are athletes who live and die by the quirky bounces of an imperfect object. There are athletes who would give their left pinky to savor the sweet taste of victory on the season’s final day.
And then there’s Jeff Tambellini.
The hockey-infatuated sophomore who led last year’s Wolverines in scoring as a wide-eyed freshman remembers first falling for his beloved pastime.
“When I was seven or eight, I realized that this was the game that I really enjoyed playing – the game I loved – and I just wanted to play it at the highest level I could,” Tambellini said. “And from then it kind of took off.”
Kind of took off? Scratch that … Exploded.
Last season, the 19-year-old led Michigan in overall points, received the CCHA Rookie of the Year Award and All-CCHA Second Team honors, helped lead the Wolverines to their third consecutive Frozen Four and was drafted No. 27 overall by the Los Angeles Kings.
“He was one player that was able to come in and not only skate as well or better than any of our players, but he had the knack with the puck to score at this level right from day one,” coach Red Berenson said.
Teammates illustrate Tambellini in a predictably uniform fashion. Junior forward Eric Nystrom describes the Port Moody, British Columbia, native as a quiet kid who “loves hockey and doesn’t think about much else.”
Freshman defenseman Tim Cook echoes Nystrom’s words, adding, “He’s just real focused on everything he needs to do and he knows where he’s going.”
So, how did this soft-spoken kid from north of the border with an obsession nearing insanity become a first-round pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft?
Jeff’s mother, Denise, has the easy answer:
“The day that he decided hockey was his thing, he was focused and never looked back. That was just what he was on a mission for and that was his road. Jeff is the most dedicated, determined and driven kid that I have ever seen. I personally don’t know anybody who works harder than Jeff. He gives it 110 percent all of the time because he loves what he is doing.”
Jeff remembers an early influence to hit the ice.
“I think it (was) just being around the game,” Jeff said. “Every person in my family, including my grandma, played hockey.”
Deep bloodlines in the sport increased Jeff’s yearning to partake in Canada’s favorite game. Jeff’s grandfather, Addie, won an amateur hockey world title with the Trail Smoke Eaters of British Columbia in 1961. His father, Steve, was the 15th pick of the 1978 NHL draft and enjoyed a 10-year career in the league. Currently, he serves as vice president for player personnel for the Vancouver Canucks.
“Growing up in the environment, hockey was a way of life,” Jeff said.
Being third in a line of phenomenal hockey players could have its downsides – such as additional pressure to perform – but Denise believes the experience benefited her son.
“I don’t think it was hard for (Jeff) growing up having a dad that played hockey,” Denise said. “I think it offered him special situations. He spent a lot of his life around an NHL team, and therefore he was real comfortable with being there.”
Tambellini got a taste of the professional hockey life, skating with Vancouver players like Cliff Ronning and Trevor Linden on a regular basis. These NHL encounters motivated Jeff, and led him to train harder.
“I think there’s a point you can get to just on talent,” Jeff said. “But when you’re 12, 13 years old it doesn’t just come to you – you’ve got to put in all those extra hours just practicing small things, and that’s what really makes the difference.”
Jeff’s passion for hockey didn’t stop on the ice.
“He was completely dedicated to hockey in his own mind,” Denise said. “It’s funny because his teachers in high school would give him an English assignment and say, ‘Jeff, you can not write about hockey,’ because his life was all about hockey.”
At the age of 16, Jeff moved an hour from home to play for the Chilliwack Chiefs of the British Columbia Hockey League.
“As a mother, it was tough,” Denise said. “We were fortunate he wasn’t that far, and we saw him often, and it allowed him to kind of take that time and lean out of home and make that transition.”
Jeff starred on Chilliwack for two seasons. In his second year, he was named the BCHL Most Valuable and Most Sportsmanlike Player, accumulating an impressive 171 points in 83 games. Maybe the most jaw-dropping statistic of his career, Jeff scored a BCHL-record four goals in the first 4:05 of a playoff game.
But even with amazing stats to put on his r�sum�, Tambellini believes his greatest asset while playing on Chilliwack was performing on the same patch of ice as players of all ages.
“Being around guys that are 21 years old when you’re 16 years old really opens your eyes up pretty quick,” Jeff said. “I think it has just helped me mature as a player and as a person.”
Jeff entertained scholarship offers from Michigan State, Boston College and Washington University in St. Louis, but he said, “When it came down to it, Michigan was just the right fit.”
Jeff credits the awesome success he enjoyed as a freshman to the experience and leadership of his linemates.
“I got to play with two seniors last season, Jed Ortmeyer and John Shouneyia, who made my year so easy,” Jeff said. “They took me under their wing last year for sure.”
Although Jeff worships his elder statesmen, thinking of the senior duo conjures the memory of last year’s season-ending overtime loss to Minnesota in the Frozen Four semifinals.
“(I remember) sitting on the bench looking at my two linemates, seeing their college careers end without them being on the ice,” Jeff said. “I was talking to Ortmeyer when we saw (Minnesota’s game-winning) goal go in, and just the look on those two’s faces – it was just emotionless.”
Tambellini strongly feels that the end of this year will feature anything but emotionless faces.
“Every guy that came back this year is just itching to get started because there’s a sour taste in our mouths,” Jeff said. “There’s a certain attitude, it only happens with certain teams. I think that at this point everybody is on the same page, and that doesn’t happen too many times with teams starting the year. Right now there’s that feeling that this is going to be the year.”
If this is “the year,” many feel the offense has to run through Tambellini.
“We’re really looking forward to watching him play this year because we know that we’re going to rely on him,” senior captain Andy Burnes said. “He’s going to have to be our best forward. He’s going to have to step up and be that big time player.”
Although just a sophomore, Tambellini has no problem dealing the pressure of headlining an offense.
“It comes with the territory,” Tambellini said. “I’m not going to put it on myself to go out of my way, but I think I really should step up and take a big role.
“I want to take my game to another level, and along with that, bring our team to not just a good level, but an exceptional level.”
After a rigorous summer of training for Tambellini – including camps for both the Kings and the Canadian Junior National Team – Berenson has already seen a change in his fledging superstar.
“He’s coming in with more confidence,” Berenson said. “And I just think he’s going to be a more complete player this year.”
So Tambellini’s drive to the top of the hockey world continues. But his one-track mindset leaves one to wonder what other aspirations Jeff would like to pursue. If he weren’t in hockey, what would Jeff like to do for a living?
“I could see Jeff being in the business world in some capacity – in the financial world or in the legal world,” Denise said.
Almost right, mom, but you forgot to specify which area of the business world.
“I’d love to work in the business field of hockey, the front office,” Tambellini said.
There are athletes who dedicate their lives to a sport, and then there’s Jeff Tambellini …