Artemi Panarin is the exception. It’s important to remember that.
Panarin came to the United States last fall unfamiliar with the North American style of play, new to the smaller NHL ice surface, and unable to speak a lick of English. Compounding matters, he missed nearly all of training camp with an injury, and was thrown right into the NHL regular season on a line with Patrick Kane.
Thirty goals and a Calder Trophy later, it seems comical how moderate expectations were for Panarin. But just because Panarin walked into the NHL a ready-made star doesn’t mean Michal Kempny will do the same.
“A year ago, when we were talking about Panarin, I tried to caution everybody, like, let’s just wait and see here,” Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “And obviously he sort of blew it out of the water with his play. But it’s not simple. It’s not as easy as people might think. You’re coming over to a totally different culture, different language, and different game in the sense that the rink is smaller, things happen quicker. So that’s the one adjustment. I’m not sure how quick it’ll happen.”
But Kempny, a 26-year-old Czech defenseman who spent last season in the KHL after six pro seasons in his home country, doesn’t sound terribly concerned. For one, he speaks the language quite well, though he’s not yet comfortable doing interviews in English. For another, he got a crash course in North American hockey at the World Cup in Toronto. Against the best players in the world, he was the Czech Republic’s top defenseman, and though he was pointless in the three tournament games, he had a goal and two assists in three pre-tournament exhibitions.
“I played a lot of minutes, and I believe that I can play against every player,” Kempny said through an interpreter. “I’m happy for that.”
Kempny’s Czech teammate, former Hawks winger Michael Frolik, liked what he saw.
“He’s pretty good, and obviously he’s been on the big ice, and now he’s coming to the smaller ice,” Frolik said. “He’s getting better every game. I think he can be pretty good.”
For Frolik, the transition to North America wasn’t all that difficult. A first-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers in 2006, Frolik immediately came over and played junior hockey in Quebec as a teenager. He said since he was so young, it took just a couple of games for him to adjust. It’ll be tougher for Kempny, who is more entrenched in the European style.
“As a defenseman, it’s different than a forward coming over,” Bowman said. “You’re defending different angles and you have more time on a bigger rink, so the quickness of your decisions is something he’s going to have to get used to.”
Kempny understands patience as well as anybody. He was undrafted, and was a mostly anonymous entity in the Czech Republic until he broke out in his final season, then moved to the KHL and scored five goals with 16 assists in 59 games. He was a workhorse for Omsk Avangard, and used his big shot on the power play and his defensive savvy on the penalty kill. Now he’s stepping up to the highest level of competition, and he feels he’s ready.
“I have to be faster,” Kempny said. “And we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
Off the ice is a different challenge. One of the big reasons the Hawks brought back veteran Michal Rozsival was so Kempny would have something of a guide to life in Chicago, much like Panarin had in Viktor Tikhonov early in the season. Ten feet of length and 15 feet of width on the ice isn’t too drastic a change. But a whole different language and a whole different culture can be quite a lot to overcome.
“I always try to tell people, just imagine you were going to live in the Czech Republic and you don’t speak the language,” Bowman said. “It’s hard. You spend an hour or two at the rink, and then you go away, and it’s a totally different world. Michal, from the times I’ve spoken to him, he’s pretty mature. I think he’s going to be OK. But we have to be understanding that it’s not going to happen in an instant. It’s going to be a process.”