By Don Stewart
Back when he was 7, T.J. Kemp skated at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto with his select hockey team. It was an unforgettable thrill for a young Ontario native.
Nineteen years later, Kemp could be headed back to NHL ice.
The former Reading Royals defenseman has signed a one-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers. It’s a two-way NHL-AHL deal with a $100,000 bonus if he makes the Oilers.
“Last year, I never would have thought I’d be where I’m at now,” Kemp said.
A product of Mercyhurst College, Kemp signed an ECHL deal with Reading in 2005 after going undrafted. He scored 40 points in 60 games with the Royals and was named to the ECHL All-Rookie Team and represented Reading at the 2006 ECHL All-Star Game while receiving call-ups from four different AHL teams.
Kemp returned to the Royals last October after being cut from Binghamton’s AHL training camp. He was quickly called up by defenseman-starved Manchester, where he spent the entire season.
A constant offensive threat from the blue line, the 5-foot-11 Kemp finished tied for fifth among league D-men in assists and was named to the AHL all-star game.
“He’s a nice story because he wasn’t an NHL draft pick or a prospect,” Royals coach Karl Taylor said. “He signed for peanuts to come to Reading and it’s paid off for him.”
Five former Royals made their NHL debuts last season, including center Rich Peverley. Like Kemp, Peverley was recruited by Taylor for his 2005-06 team.
“I’m really happy for T.J.,” Taylor said. “When he came back the second year, it took some convincing that he was making the right decision. It’s one of those good stories that I will use now in recruiting.”
Kemp said, realistically, he expects to start the season playing with Edmonton’s AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. The Oilers already have several power-play defensemen, including Denis Grebeshkov, Dick Tarnstrom and Matt Greene.
“I just have to hope that I play well in Springfield and maybe a couple guys get hurt or whatever and maybe I get a shot,” said Kemp, who will participate in his first NHL training camp.
“It’s just one step forward that’s going to help me get to the next level. I’m not there yet. I have to keep playing well and keep my fingers crossed and see what happens.”