The color of a practice jersey doesn’t mean much.
But for Michigan junior defenseman Steve Kampfer, a white jersey means much more than a red one.
Red denotes an injured player, someone the rest of the skaters should take extra caution around.
White simply means a defenseman.
Practicing with no-contact instructions, Kampfer wore a white jersey yesterday, which means he’s taking a step in the right direction. And that path leads back to the blue line.
“Right now, it’s just about getting back out there with the team, start passing, making sure my feet are getting back into things and my speed’s getting up,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll be that long of a process.”
Six weeks ago, Kampfer was hospitalized with a fractured skull following an off-ice assault. He wore a neck brace until Nov. 19.
Thirty minutes before yesterday’s practice, Kampfer worked on conditioning with Wolverine assistant coach Mel Pearson, who fed the defenseman passes all over the ice. Kampfer worked on passing, skating backwards and sprinting. Then, he skated a full practice with his teammates, completing all the drills.
Before yesterday’s practice, he was energetic and excited. He repeatedly referred to “right now,” trying to focus on his present abilities and current conditions.
He said he’s been lifting light weights and bench-pressing small amounts to try to build up his strength.
And he hasn’t had to rehabilitate alone. Senior defenseman Mark Mitera, who suffered an ACL injury in the season-opening game against St. Lawrence, has also lifted weights and watched practice with Kampfer. The two have grown closer, working through serious injuries and sitting in the bleachers to watch their teammates skate.
“Watching from the stands, it’s a lot easier to see plays,” Kampfer said. “We try to see (what) we would have done compared to what the guys do, if they’re good or bad. … We’re trying to keep everything positive for the two of us because we’re both going to come out of this stronger as people and as players.”
Kampfer said he has seen progress each day. As soon as he got the neck brace off, he was able to start training on a stationary bike. Last week, he skated alone for the first time to see if he could withstand the weight of his hockey helmet.
“It gives the team a boost,” said sophomore defenseman Chad Langlais, who was often paired with Kampfer last season. “He’s worked really hard, and he looks good.”
After practicing yesterday, his next goal will be to take a hard hit.
“That first hit, I’m going to sit back and be like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’” Kampfer said. “Right now, we’re just kind of trying to take it day-by-day. How do I feel today? Basically, how am I doing tomorrow? How’d I feel yesterday?”
Kampfer said his doctors told him he would regain full strength and neck movement in a month. Then, “it’s all up to the coaches,” he said.
Pearson said it’ll probably take the defenseman a few weeks to get back to game speed.
Over the past six weeks, Kampfer has gotten a taste of what it’s like to be an average college student — a student-athlete without his sport.
After taking a week off from class initially following his hospitalization, Kampfer returned to academics. He said he has become more focused on school over the past semester, since he is taking more challenging classes and has more time to study for them.
The extra time to focus on classwork has replaced time Kampfer has usually spent with his teammates or other friends.
“I didn’t feel comfortable going out in a neck brace to see any of my friends,” he said. “I didn’t feel comfortable being around people who were intoxicated.”
And instead of traveling with the team on trips to Alaska and Minnesota, Kampfer spent time with his parents, who live just 20 minutes from campus. He followed the team’s games, but something was missing.
“When the guys were on the road, I’d either hang out with my parents or go watch a movie,” Kampfer said. “Just trying to do other things so I’m not bored out of my mind. … I missed being around the guys a lot. Missing the road trips, you don’t get that bonding in hotels on the planes on the bus.”
It looks like he will be able to experience that pretty soon.
But the past six weeks have taught Kampfer something he couldn’t learn on the ice or in a classroom — appreciation.
“People don’t realize in the blink of an eye your whole life can change,” Kampfer said. “I had that thought process for a week: Am I going to be OK? Am I going to be able to play hockey again? Then you sit there and you realize, everyone’s there to get you through the whole thing and make you stronger as a person.”