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Twenty Years Later, A Different Path Taken

A collection of photos sparks a search, and finds a one-time Lightning prospect with a different collection of memories from the past 20 years. Andrew Kemper wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tuesday, 10.02.2012 / 5:00 PM / Features
By Matt Sammon  - Lightning Radio
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Twenty Years Later, A Different Path Taken
A collection of photos sparks a search, and finds a one-time Lightning prospect with a different collection of memories from the past 20 years. Andrew Kemper wouldn\u2019t have it any other way.

One of the benefits to being a pack rat, and a fan of the Lightning for 20 years now, is I can finally use a storage bin-high pile of media guides, game programs, and ticket stubs to good use. One of my big summer offseason tasks was to go through the items, scan pictures of what I thought was historically relevant or at the very least mildly entertaining, and then schedule those items—one a day through the end of the season which I hope is some time in mid June. Heaven knows I have enough stuff from 20 years of watching this team to cover the time.

While sorting through the numerous items and scheduling them out, I found a scan from the March 1993 edition of the team’s magazine Flash. It was a one-page blurb about four junior players in the Lightning system: four headshots, four stats lines, and a brief paragraph explaining what junior hockey is. The paragraph concludes with line, “This month, we introduce you to four of them, players who will hopefully wear the Lightning colors in the future.” In each of the pictures you see four young men, all the age of 18, gazing not just in to a camera but also in to an uncertain future. Would they actually wear Lightning colors in the future? For the record, I needed to find out.

Off the top of my head I knew Aaron Gavey and Drew Bannister were the bigger prospects at the time, and I knew they did eventually make it to the NHL with the Lightning. Bannister played the most with the Lightning, appearing in 98 games, and 164 in the NHL while amazingly playing professionally up until this past spring in Great Britain before being named an assistant coach in Owen Sound. Gavey only appeared in 89 games with the Lightning, but had the longer NHL career with 360 career games. Brantt Myhres was a fan favorite tough guy who only appeared in 62 games with the Lightning and 154 in the NHL, but he may have had the longest unintended effect of the four—in 1997 he was part of a trade package with the Edmonton Oilers which netted the Lightning an extra draft pick in the 1998 entry draft. The Lightning selected Dmitry Afanasenkov, a depth forward who was part of the 2004 Stanley Cup championship team.

I didn’t recognize the fourth face though. He was a 6-foot-2, 190-pound defenseman named Andrew Kemper. He was also a 9th-round pick in the 1992 entry draft, which basically meant “long shot”. But that doesn’t mean “no shot”. After all if you look at the 1992 draft you’ll see 11 spots after Kemper was selected 193rd overall, some Russian kid named Nikolai Khabibulin was given a flier by the Winnipeg Jets so Kemper deserved a little research.

A quick look at hockeydb.com answered the question for me. After four seasons in the Western Hockey League, and a cup of coffee in Kansas City with the IHL, Kemper’s professional career ended in 1996 with the ECHL’s Mobile Mysticks. After sitting out a year due to Canada West Universities Athletic Association rules, he played three seasons with the University of British Columbia. In the world of hockey statistics, that was the end of the story. And it almost was for me, as I jotted down the line, “Kemper didn’t make it to the NHL.”

But then I thought, “This can’t be the end of the story.” We all love an underdog, and as a broadcaster I would be doing the late Paul Harvey a disservice by not figuring out what “the rest of the story” was. Curiosity, and a touch of guilt for kicking this kid to the curb, set in. So I started my quest for answers where it wasn’t possible to start 20 years ago—Google.

You’d be surprised to see how many Andrew or Andy Kempers there are, and quite a few are involved in hockey, but I couldn’t quite find the one I was looking for as I sifted through page after page and picture after picture. I then took a cue from his playing career—he went to school in British Columbia. So I narrowed the search and found a page from a corporate finance advisor’s website. The brief biography of Andrew Kemper the accountant to Andrew Kemper the hockey player’s timeline seemed to match. The thumbnail photo on the website presented some challenges however, as the Kemper on this website was wearing a suit and a tie. He had eyeglasses, shorter hair, and the picture was in a sepia tone which made a spot-on comparison to the faded color photo on newsprint from 20 years ago a little difficult to carry out. I thought there were enough similarities to where it might be a match. Beneath the photo was his email address, and I decided to take a shot in the dark.

Good day Mr. Kemper, and forgive me for interrupting you but I had a question that you may have had asked before in your life. Are you the same Andrew Kemper drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992?

About 36 hours later I got a response:

Matt,

That is me. Let me know what you would like to know and I will try to help.

Like a 9th-round pick panning out, a few Google searches and an email out of the blue found my target. After a few weeks of juggling schedules around, we finally did an interview over the phone.

“I probably took a different path than they did… they were probably better hockey players, that’s probably why they continued playing longer than I did”, a chuckling Kemper deadpanned early on in our interview. The story of the young man in that photo began to unfold. Born in Montreal, Kemper was born a Canadiens fan, although like many Canadian youths coming of age in the 1980s his hockey focus shifted west to the high flying Oilers where he modeled his playing style to the likes of Paul Coffey and Kevin Lowe.

Even though the other three players in the Flash feature may have been better players in Kemper’s eyes, not everyone gets drafted by an NHL organization. And while Kemper credits the large pool of scouts always present at WHL games for starting his path in professional hockey, the fact is in one game (or maybe a few) with the Seattle Thunderbirds he did something that caught the attention of someone watching for the Lightning. In June 1992, the Lightning took a chance with Kemper in the 9th round, and at first he didn’t know he was drafted by the Lightning. “I was actually travelling with my family at the time, with my mom and dad, we were on a vacation so I wasn’t home. The team had called and left a voicemail at my home. Obviously I listened to that later, but the next morning after the draft my dad was looking at the paper and found it. That’s actually how I really found out.” Less than two months later, Kemper found himself in Lakeland, taking part in the organization’s first training camp.

“It was pretty exciting. It’s a bit of a whirlwind when you’re a young guy going to your first NHL camp. I think I was lucky to go and experience that because being an expansion franchise they had less players in their system so I had the opportunity to go to training camp where as now teams have lots of players in their system. They do rookie camp, like development camp first… and some of those kids don’t end up actually getting to go to the main camp where the actual NHL players are. So that was pretty cool, looking back at it.” With Kemper looking back at the experience of the Lightning’s first training camp now, he also began to look back at his entire playing experience from that day forward. Although he never made it to the NHL, he certainly made it to plenty of other places thanks to the nomadic lifestyle of a player trying to make his way to the big leagues.

A look at Andrew Kemper then and now.

“I had great experiences with my hockey, not only getting to travel as part of that and seeing different parts of the world that I never thought I would see, but getting to play a pretty high level of hockey in a bunch of different leagues”, Kemper reminisced. Even places you or I wouldn’t find extraordinary by any means ended up being interesting destinations for someone who otherwise may have just stayed in Canada all his life. “Being an 18-year-old, 20-year-old kid, being in Kansas City or Mobile, Alabama, just seeing those kind of places and getting to travel those kind of places, it’s a different world right from here (Canada)? It’s hard to actually describe and imagine, first go there.” Kemper did manage to spread his wings a little further than the swamps of Mobile Bay, travelling as far as Europe while playing at the University of British Columbia.

While travelling the world and playing hockey provided some social and entertainment value, the real bang-for-the-buck came in 1996, when Kemper realized his chances at making an NHL roster were slim. “I knew I wanted to get an education, it was just a question of how I was going to do it. For every year you play with a team (in the WHL) you get a year of schooling paid for. Both the teams I played for, Saskatoon and Seattle were both great organizations, they agreed that they’d give me a year to try to go play pro and see how it worked out and if it didn’t work out come back to them and say, ‘Yeah I want my full scholarship money’ and go to school.” It wasn’t a tough choice for Kemper to make. “I’m two levels below the NHL, it’s a long road to get there, and this is an opportunity to use that money and get my education so I made the decision to go do that.”

It was a decision that many 22-year-olds would waffle on, but Kemper offers a solid reason why he chose to forgo his NHL dreams and go the education route-- one that resonates with tens of thousands of college-educated adults today; “Getting my schooling paid for… you can’t go wrong there. A lot of people walk out of university now with big student debts. I walked out debt-free, and with a good degree, and lots of good opportunities.”

That’s where the life of Andrew Kemper the pro hockey player ends, but more importantly where the eventful life of Andrew Kemper the accountant begins. He earned his degree in 2000, and has been in the field for 12 years now. After making the change from pro hockey player to student, he got married and started a family as he and his wife have 12-year-old and 9-year-old boys who both play hockey. Looking back at the picture from the Flash magazine, Kemper not only sees someone from 20 years ago, but perhaps someone 9 years from now. “It [the picture] is a carbon copy of my 9-year-old. That was great that you sent that picture… we had a few good chuckles at the office even about it.”

And one reason why Kemper has succeeded in the highly-competitive financial sector is his experience in the highly-competitive world of professional hockey. “Hockey teaches lots of life skills. Just things like determination, and commitment to doing something and team work. I can’t underestimate those factors. I see lots of people in business that are very very smart people, but they don’t know how to work on a team and it’s pretty tough to get stuff done all by yourself all the time.” And just because he doesn’t play hockey at a highly competitive level any more, doesn’t mean he’s completely out of the rink world we live in. Kemper has coached youth hockey for several years now, and is the president of his local hockey club. His own children have “an inkling” about his playing days, but he doubts the rest of the kids he coaches know the full story until now.

When you look back at 20 Years of Thunder, you find many great players, great plays, and great moments. And while a handful of players and moments can define the general theme of 20 years of hockey, there are many more people beneath the surface who make up part of the history of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Much like Phil Esposito hoped his dream of hockey in Tampa Bay would work, Kemper and other players posing for those pictures in 1992 hoped to be a part of the team... or any team in the NHL for that matter. There's plenty of reason to celebrate those who are famous and who made the team a winner, but there's no reason to collectively look past and look down upon those who didn't make the cut.

Twenty years later, Kemper isn't known as that 9th round diamond in the rough or that guy who played 15 years in the minors before getting a sniff at the NHL. But he's known as a husband, a father, a financial adviser for companies, and a coach trusted in guiding the hockey dreams of other peoples' children. And he's perfectly fine with that. “It all works out for a reason I think. I can’t complain with where my life has twisted me, that’s for sure. Everything is pretty good these days.”