ARLINGTON, V.A. — Michal Kempny is cool and collected as he stands at the podium clad in a Washington Capitals ball cap and hoodie. He smiles behind his face mask as he looks out at the NHL practice rink he had just skated on for the first time in months, happy to be back after a lengthy tenure away from the District — and a long, interesting road back.
Adversity, opportunity and a global pandemic over the last couple of seasons have taken Kempny a number of places. And on Monday, it has him back up in Washington following a call-up that he hopes to make the most of.
“As a player, you want to compete at your best. You want to play in the best league in the world,” he noted. “It’s NHL.”
Kempny had been expected to make his full-time NHL comeback this season after dealing with a multitude of major injuries to his left leg over the last couple of seasons, including a torn hamstring, torn Achilles and odd grade-2 MCL sprain following a collision with an ice shoveler during his conditioning stint last year. However, he unexpectedly started the 2021-22 campaign in the American Hockey League after the Capitals cut him from the training camp roster and sent him down to the Hershey Bears in October.
“When I started to play, everything felt kind of too fast for me,” Kempny admitted. “As a defenseman, you’ve got shoulder checks everywhere. You have to know where to pass the puck before you get to the puck. It’s just, from the start, everything was kind of too fast for me. Right now, I feel like the game kind of slow down for me.”
Despite the decision, Kempny said he tried to make the most of his time in the minors. The 31-year-old took on the role of a top-pairing defenseman and wore the “A,” while also playing on the penalty kill and in many different scenarios. Through 24 games so far, Kempny has dished seven assists and 32 PIMs, and he has also been skating top-pairing minutes. He also feels different aspects of his game coming back to him.
“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 blueliner 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.”
Kempny’s play, leadership and attitude both on and off the ice earned him a call-up back to the big club as Washington deals with more COVID-19 cases that are mainly impacting the blue line. Three of the top-6 regulars in Martin Fehervary, Nick Jensen and Justin Schultz are on protocol, and Dennis Cholowski is also out due to the virus.
“It’s been crazy. Every team probably is dealing with it right now. You’re dealing with the COVID every day,” Kempny said. “You don’t know who’s going to come positive, who’s going to be positive on the other time, are you going to play or not.”
At Monday’s practice, Kempny slotted in on the second pairing with Trevor van Riemsdyk. The Capitals’ current situation is fluid, but if all stays the same, the Czech blueliner could make his regular-season debut on Wednesday against the Nashville Predators. It would be his first regular-season game back since March 9, 2020, when he played against the Buffalo Sabres.
“He’s got a lot of experience, and he was playing well. [It’s] a great opportunity for him,” head coach Peter Laviolette said of No. 6.
As for Kempny, he is ready to capitalize on that very opportunity to play NHL minutes again. However, he’s not getting ahead of himself or thinking too much about the implications. Instead, he’s taking things day by day and enjoying the moment.
“I have the mindset that I don’t want to end up down [in the AHL] whole season,” Kempny 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.”