Over a span of three games at the end of his junior season with the club ice hockey team, Alex Kempinski suffered a separated shoulder, a broken wrist and a broken elbow.
“It was three games, three ER visits, and after that I knew my hockey career was over,” he said.
Kempinski played hockey at Cranford High School in New Jersey before joining Temple’s club team as a sophomore. He said aside from “an absurd number” of concussions, he had a relatively injury-free career before that three-game stretch. During Summer 2016, Kempinski told Ryan Dumbach, the hockey club president, he wouldn’t be returning to the ice.
Though Dumbach understood Kempinski’s decision, he said it was a tough loss for the team because Kempinski played physically and could score. Kempinski tallied three goals and three assists in the 2015-16 season.
“Seeing him get hurt multiple times made you wonder how unlucky he could be,” Dumbach said.
In August 2016, Kempinski tried out for the rugby team. He chose rugby for the game’s physicality and the “similar culture” it shares with hockey. Kempinski earned a spot at flanker in the fall 15-player season and now plays at prop for the seven-player rookie squad.
Both are forward positions, meaning Kempinski participates in scrums when play is restarted. On offense, props are expected to gain ground by breaking tackles and passing to other forwards, while flankers are expected to be open for passes if other forwards need to get rid of the ball. Defensively, both positions must be strong tacklers.
“I just wasn’t ready to end my athletic career on injuries,” Kempinski said.
Despite his lack of experience, he made an impression in his first practice. Club President Michael Wellstein said Kempinski ran right through experienced players on the team.
“I think his non-specialty is actually an advantage, and because he has no prior rugby experience, we can mold him to play our style,” Wellstein said.
Kempinski said his first scrimmage, a preseason contest against St. Joseph’s, is one of his favorite moments in his rugby career.
He needed to rely on a more experienced teammate to know where to go before kickoff. The ball went directly to him, which was beneficial, he said, because it allowed him to start by running as fast as he could. Kempinski got a confident start to his career by breaking a few tackles from the defense.
Kempinski is still honing his rugby instincts. He says he relies on his intuition on the field, rather than his experience.
“It’s like trying to learn physics without knowing algebra or calculus,” he said. “It’s tactically very frustrating, because guys like Mike have been playing their whole lives.”
Though Kempinski enjoys rugby and would welcome the opportunity to play against other less-experienced players, he said he is more likely to seek a recreational men’s hockey league after graduation. He is more comfortable with the flow of hockey, but he still has to try to keep up mentally when playing rugby.
For now, he’s bringing the same hard-working mentality he had on the ice to the rugby field.
“Alex has an unmatched work ethic,” Wellstein said. “His drive is infectious. I line up next to him during sprints for that reason. There are different types of leaders, and Alex leads by example. By giving 100 percent consistently, every sprint, every drill, every hit, he makes us a better team.”
Jay Neemeyer can be reached at email@example.com.