Mario Kempe, the only Swedish-born player in the Philadelphia Flyers' system, says his adjustment to the North American game was a success.
In all honesty, however, Kempe might be short-changing himself. He was more like a smash hit who left a lasting impression.
In two seasons with the St. John's Fog Devils in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the 6-foot, 185-pound forward posted 48 goals and 91 points in 110 games. He established career-highs in goals (25), assists (24), points (49) and plus/minus rating (plus-6) in 48 games this past season after missing some time due to injury and while attending the World Junior Championships for silver-medalist Team Sweden. But he also excelled in the QMJHL playoffs in 2008, scoring 4 goals and 3 assists in six games during a first-round series loss to Acadie-Bathurst.
"Playing in the 'Q' helped me a lot," Kempe told NHL.com. "It's a different kind of hockey to what I'm used to and, obviously, playing in the NHL is my ultimate goal, so I knew I had to come over early, learn all the different rules and get adjusted to the smaller rinks. You certainly don't have as much time with the puck as you do in Europe, so I was thinking that coming over and learning would only benefit me."
Kempe, born in Kramfors, Sweden, returned to his native land to play for Rogle BK of the Swedish Elite League in 2008-09. According to Kempe, the chance to play on an elite level was too good an opportunity to forego.
"I've been in the 'Q' for two seasons and wanted to get to that next level, so when the (Swedish team) called and wanted me, I really felt playing senior hockey on that level would only enhance my skills," Kempe said. "I signed for one year and, hopefully, when I come back to North America, I'll be ready to take that next step with the Flyers.
"When I return to Sweden, I'll continue to play the style of game that I learned in North America because that's why the Flyers drafted me and that's what the Flyers staff wants me to do. I'll continue to showcase my quickness and square me shoulder to the net when given the chance."
Chris Pryor, the Flyers' director of hockey operations, realizes Kempe is determined to improve his game by shifting overseas.
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(6th east/11th NHL)
|Change from 2006-07||+39|
(8th east/17th NHL)
(4th West/7th NHL)
Kempe, Philadelphia's fifth-round selection (No. 122) in 2007, is a skilled playmaker who enjoys dazzling fans with his acceleration and craftiness. The 19-year-old center/wing, who took part in his second Flyers prospect camp at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, N.J., from July 20-26, has also developed a sound defensive game and even served as an assistant captain for St. John's in 2007-08.
"My coach at St. John's (Real Paiement) taught me how to play good defense and that's something I'll certainly take with me," Kempe said. "In Europe, I was more like a guy with great speed who would look to get those chance breakaways. But that strategy didn't work out so well in North America as it did in Europe, so I had to learn to play a little bit different and it was a great learning experience.
"Coach (Paiement) actually named me assistant captain in my first season and that was something I didn't expect at all. Especially since I was just coming over from Sweden and my English wasn't very good. But Coach told me that he wanted me to be an assistant because I showed good respect for the game and I always gave it 100 percent and those are the qualities I want to bring to the Flyers some day. In the locker room, I'm a little bit laid back and quiet and, really, having the 'A' on your jersey is much like an assistant coach. You just have to pick your spots and lead by example."
Despite his stature, Kempe doesn't hesitate in his relentless pursuit of the puck along the boards and is extremely aggressive around the goal cage.
"My goal is to play with the Flyers and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen," Kempe said. "The new rules (in the NHL) can only help me. I'm not very big, so if I continue to move my feet and make things happen, I'll be able to draw a lot of penalties for our team and then get some time on the power play and score some goals."
"My goal is to play with the Flyers and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen." -- Mario Kempe
While Kempe admits to having his own style on the ice, he does take bits and pieces from many of the NHL's stars, past and present.
"I have my own style, but I'll try and watch how other great players do it, like Pavel Bure and Marion Gaborik (speed), Mario Lemieux (the shortest distance to the goal) and Mikael Renberg (grinder)," Kempe said. "I enjoy playing for the fans and try and watch players with a similar style to mine. It gives me more ideas and things to work on."
Paiement was certainly pleased with Kempe's ability and leadership.
"Mario is a very smart player," he said. "I don't think he tends to get the credit he deserves as a two-way player because he is often looked at as just an offensive player. But he played for us in all situations (in 2007-08), including the penalty kill. He's the type of player that I think will have a role as a situational player, even if he is not a big offensive player because he is very versatile."
Craig Berube, the Flyers' assistant coach, was impressed with Kempe's intelligence and swiftness during developmental camp.
"He definitely has very good skill, quick feet and goes to the net hard," Berube said. "He's very noticeable out there and I really feel he has a good future in front of him so long as he continued to work hard and improve."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.