Language barrier no longer an issue for Blackhawks’ Michal Kempny
Michal Kempny’s first English interview lasted maybe 10 seconds.
After summoning the courage during the preseason to give it a try — no small feat for someone still learning the language — Kempny’s eyes started darting around in the middle of the first question, a softball about his comfort level in his second training camp with the Blackhawks. After asking the reporter to repeat the question, Kempny looked around for help, saw none coming, simply said, “I can’t,” then hurried back into the safety of the dressing room.
But three months later, Kempny’s English — and his confidence — have come a long way. In fact, he speaks quite well.
“I’m taking lessons, two times a week,” he said. “I feel a little bit more comfortable, and I’m getting better a little bit.”
Kempny has worked as hard on his English as he has on his game, determined to become proficient in both. Besides his tutor, he has an English-speaking girlfriend, who’s also from the Czech Republic. He can get some interpreting help from Jan Rutta and Richard Panik in a pinch. And he has been binge-watching Showtime’s “Homeland,” in English, with English subtitles.
“It’s really, really good,” Kempny said with a smile. “It’s helping me, too.”
Most Europeans come to the NHL with some level of English, and some — particularly Swedes and Finns — are pretty much fluent having been taught English and their native tongues in school. Kempny did not. When he came to Chicago from the KHL last fall, he clung to his countrymen in the dressing room and was all but lost in team meetings. Michal Rozsival did most of the interpreting for him, but coach Joel Quenneville’s colorful diatribes often left Kempny’s head spinning.
“It was my first year in the USA, so my English was zero,” he said. “It was really hard to understand. The first days, I didn’t understand anything, and it was really hard.”
By the midway point of last season, Kempny understood everything that he needed. Conversing took a little longer. But now that he has reached a point of near-fluency, it’s easier to be one of the guys in the room and to work with coaches on the ice.
After practices, he casually converses with teammates and broadcasters, deftly switching between English and Czech. He’s even trying to avoid slipping back into Czech when going out to dinners with Rutta and Panik.
“Being here for a while now, you get acclimated to the city, your teammates, your friends, exposure to TV and everything like that,” Quenneville said. “He’s gotten more comfortable with everything.”
It helps that he’s playing again. Connor Murphy’s move to the left side knocked Kempny out of the lineup for more than a month. Injuries to Jan Rutta and Cody Franson finally got him back in, and he has played well in the last three games.
Kempny was in and out of the lineup last season, as well, but never had to sit out 13 consecutive games. The trick now will be keeping his spot, with Rutta and Franson both cleared to return. And with the Hawks coming off a 4-0 loss in Dallas, Quenne-ville could change his personnel for the game Saturday at New Jersey.
Kempny hopes to stay in the lineup, of course. In the universal language of hockey, the last words anyone wants to hear are “healthy scratch.”
“It was really hard, but the only thing you can do is work hard, stay positive and be -patient,” Kempny said. “Some days, I was fine. But some days, I was down. It was really hard. But I’m back now, and it’s a really good feeling to be back.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.