Junior hockey season in the Czech Republic is already entering into its second phase, with teams in the Under-20 and Under-18 category going all in to salvage their hopes of winning their respective Extraligas. Most of the Czech-based players eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft play in the U-20 Extraliga that has now, in late January, reached the end of its regular season.
When you talk about a European player, the first thing that comes to mind is skill. One of the top two forwards that still play in the Czech Republic and is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft is David Kämpf. But, if you expected breathtaking dangles from Kämpf, you'd be wrong. This modest, 18-year-old native of Jirkov, Czech Republic, a little town outside Chomutov, is a physical presence, and even though one might see him as less skillful than Luboš Rob, Jr., who is the other top forward from the class and the captain of the Czech U-18 national team, Kämpf has made big steps towards the NHL by playing professional hockey.
His hometown team Piráti Chomutov (Chomutov Pirates) considers him a huge prospect despite the fact that the organization's Under-20 team is led by other players. His two appearances in the Czech Extraliga is further proof of his progress, even though the young warrior was unable to collect any points. Kämpf has also played in the 1. liga, which is a level under the Extraliga, where he was on loan to Kadaň, a team that makes use of Chomutov's young guns, including 2014 draft prospect Ondřej Kaše. Unlike Kaše, however, Kämpf managed to pick up an assist during his two games for Kadaň.
Exposure to pro hockey is a good way to get the attention of scouts, and the four appearances in the top two Czech hockey leagues has only raised Kämpf's chances of being drafted. The powerful forward could be drafted in the late rounds of the NHL Draft. With a playing style similar to that of Vladimír Sobotka, Kämpf might be considered a steal one day. Physical play is the main part of his game, and he admits that physical play is where he excels more than at slick dangles or accurate passes. Also, he's a perfect halfback – just like a football running back, Kämpf is able to pick up the puck and skate with it through a defensive wall. Against the tough defense of the Russian Under-18 national team, he did it a couple of times, but he'll have to work on this area of his game if he wants to translate that ability to North American hockey.
Jiří Kepka, however, doesn't have the kind of ability that both Kämpf and Rob have. It might be called scoring instinct or playing like a star. You can notice that some players, including Kämpf and Rob, play hockey as if they were born playing hockey. They always skate to where they're supposed to, and their passes or shots rarely hit a roadblock. Kepka is different. Although he's nowhere near being a natural hockey star, he is doing exactly what a hockey player is supposed to do – fight relentlessly for every inch of ice.
The native of Pilsen has yet to be called up to the professional hockey leagues as he's not even a top-six forward for his junior team. His ability to make the opponent suffer and get frustrated by being so relentless in every situation is, however, admirable. And it's not like that's everything he's got. He doesn't have the potential to develop an NHL shot, NHL vision, or NHL passing skills. The thing that makes him a possible draft pick is that he doesn't know what quitting means, but Kepka also knows that he needs to work hard on everything to have any chance of succeeding at a higher level. After Kepka was given some responsibility on the top power-play line of the Czech Under-18 national team, he even contributed with a couple of goals and assists. Thanks to his attitude, he poses a danger to his opponents every time he steps on the ice.
Hockey's Future: What's the feeling of being a part of your country's Under-18 national team?
David Kämpf: It's a great feeling and I'm definitely happy for it.
Jiří Kepka: I think it's got to be an honor for every player here, we all have to give it our best.
HF: As one of the leaders of this team, what do you expect from the 2013 World U-18 Championship?
DK: I'm not in the lineup for it yet, but I hope I'll get there. It would be a huge experience for me.
HF: What do you think caused the failure of this team to be able to compete with other teams at the World Junior A Challenge in November?
DK: There were mostly older players (on the opposing teams) which caused us a lot of trouble. On our side, I think we weren't good enough at finishing chances off.
JK: Most of the opponents were older and we just couldn't get into the rhythm. Recently, we've closed ranks a little more and now we're heading to another tournament.
HF: Jiří, this season is your first in the Czech Under-20 Extraliga. What do you say about the jump from the Under-18 Extraliga?
JK: The hockey is definitely a little faster in the U-20 category, some players are up to three years older than me. I have to work a little harder, but it suits me well. Hard work is very important at this level.
HF: How would the two of you describe your style of play?
DK: I'm not much of a technical player so my playing style is based on power and physicality. Just like many Czech kids, I like the way Jaromír Jágr plays.
JK: I don't think I'm a special player, I just always give it all I've got. I like the way Marián Gáborík plays.
HF: Have you ever considered playing Major Junior hockey in Canada?
DK: Yes, I have, but it's not my aim to go there yet. We'll see what the future brings.
JK: No, not really.
HF: Jiří, did playing for the national team in your hometown give you additional motivation?
JK: It did, a little, but it doesn't really matter where we play. I'm happy to be here, but I wouldn't say I felt more motivated than usual.