Michal Kempny’s road to the NHL was long. His Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) debut didn’t come until after his 25th birthday and, as an undrafted prospect who spent his junior career in Slovakia, there were never any guarantees that he would make it to the big show.
But, after impressing in Russia for Avangard Omsk, he reached the promised land in 2016-17, signing a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. Following another successful first season in a new county (and league), Kempny re-committed to the Illinois franchise, making 31 further appearances for the Blackhawks before he was dealt to the Washington Capitals.
Traded for a third-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Czech blueliner arrived in D.C. on Feb. 19, 2018. He hoisted the Stanley Cup just 108 days later, instantly becoming a fan favourite at Capital One Arena.
If the sense of euphoria Kempny felt on his day with the Cup was the highest of highs, he has also experienced the lowest of lows since. The 6-foot-1 defenceman has suffered three serious injuries to his left leg since Washington defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5, once tearing his hamstring and twice damaging his anterior cruciate ligament. Reassignment to the Hershey Bears followed.
When Kempny first broke into the NHL, he realized a childhood dream. When he returned to the Washington lineup after two years away earlier this week, he overcame injury hell. Make no mistake, the 31-year-old’s NHL comeback is one of the biggest feel-good stories of the season. It mustn’t be overlooked.
Strong Form and COVID-19 Led to Michal Kempny’s NHL Return
Kempny was recalled by the Capitals on Dec. 27 after six players fell into the league’s coronavirus protocol list. Washington’s COVID six included three top-six defencemen (Martin Fehervary, Nick Jensen, Justin Schultz), the team’s seventh defenceman (Dennis Cholowski), and a tandem netminder (Vitek Vanecek).
Although Kempny was in line for a call-up given the circumstances, he earned his opportunity to return to the fold in D.C. through his performances in the American Hockey League (AHL) for the Bears.
In 24 appearances for Hershey this term, the Hodonin native put up seven points – all of them assists – alongside third-year pro, Bobby Nardella. They struck up quite the relationship in the AHL, eating top-pair minutes as the Bears vaulted up the Atlantic Division standings with a 14-9-2 record. Kempny wore the ‘A’ with the Bears and played a prominent role on the penalty kill, a position he relished on his road to recovery.
“My mindset has been, you know, same all the time. I mean, I’m trying to work every day and trying to work my way back. I’m not stressing out,” the veteran defender explained.
“You know, it was what it was, or it is what it is. I mean, obviously, I didn’t expect to play in AHL. But you know, I got sent down there and I got to say that they have a really good group. The coaches, the trainers. It’s been really good down there… it really helped me a lot to kind of build my confidence back up.”
Through two NHL appearances to close out the calendar year, it’s clear that his stress-free approach is paying dividends.
Banked Pass Gets Michal Kempny Back on the Board
After almost two years away, Kempny made his NHL return in Washington’s 5-3 win over the Nashville Predators on Wednesday [Dec. 29]. He featured on the second pair alongside Trevor van Riemsdyk, played more than 20 minutes, and bagged a secondary assist. As comebacks go, it was a good one.
Kempny’s play to set up Nick Dowd’s goal was especially impressive, banking his pass off the boards to start a fateful Washington attack. The point capped off a positive night for the defender, who didn’t look out of place in his first NHL game since March 9, 2020.
“I have the mindset that I don’t want to end up down [in the AHL] whole season,” he said. “I just try to be positive every day, to work hard, that everything’s going to turn out well for me. Right now, I’m here, and we’ll see what’s going to happen. I’m going to enjoy every day to be here, I’m not going to say what’s going to happen in the future… I’m trying to be in the present.”
Versus the Detroit Red Wings, Kempny was less impressive. Although he kept pace with the game through much of his 19:52 of ice time, his lack of sharpness was exposed on Detroit’s goal – which left him flummoxed as the buzzer sounded.
However, his reintroduction to life in the NHL was never going to be straightforward – and there remain reasons to be cheerful. Kempny is back – at least for as long as the Caps require COVID cover – and is starting to look like his old self. He could come in handy by the time the playoffs swing into view.
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Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.