Longtime Winterhawks broadcaster leaves the booth
Hockey is a polarizing sport. People who love it really love it. People who don't have never seen it live.
That's what diehard fans of the game will tell you, and Hillsboro native and 1984 Glencoe High School graduate Andy Kemper would agree.
"No doubt that people who watch hockey live will want to come back nine times out of 10," said Kemper. "It doesn't necessarily translate to television that well, because TV focuses on the puck and you can't see everything that's going on around it. But there's something going on for every sense in your head."
Kemper recently retired as the Portland Winterhawks' color commentator after 15 years behind the microphone. But while he is still in love with the game, it's his family that's driving his decision to step away.
But before we get to the end of the trip that's been nothing short of a labor of love, let's talk about the journey that started more than 40 years ago.
The Portland Winterhawks are a junior hockey team that came to Portland in 1976. The team consists of players ages 16 to 21, and while it's not technically professional hockey, the Western Hockey League serves as a preparatory league for prospective pro hockey players.
The Winterhawks are widely considered to be one of the more successful junior hockey organizations and are one of the more fruitful teams in terms of producing National Hockey League players, including Hall of Famers Mark Messier and Cam Neely.
Born at Tuality Hospital, Kemper lived for a bit in Cornelius before his family eventually settled in Hillsboro. He played a fair amount of baseball growing up and dabbled a bit in other sports, but it was hockey that grabbed his attention, and it never let go.
"My dad used to go to the old Portland Buckaroos games in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and took us kids," Kemper said. "Later, my older sister married a guy who played for the old junior buckaroos, so that kind of got us into it."
Kemper never played hockey, and in fact would be considered a very limited ice skater. But while not a player, Kemper was in attendance for the inaugural Hawks game in 1976, and ever since, he has missed very few.
"I've probably only missed 30 or so home games in their existence," said Kemper of the Winterhawks. "It was a big part of my life growing up from the time I was 10 years old."
He loves the speed of it. Hockey is a game that makes substitutions on the fly, and due to its up-and-down nature, it appeals to people with a zest for action. Unlike sports like baseball and football that start and stop on a dime, hockey frequently goes seven or eight minutes without a stoppage.
"I love the speed and creativity," Kemper said. "There's always something happening."
After high school, Kemper went straight into the workforce. But despite having a full-time job, his love for the game and the Portland Winterhawks never waned. He continued to attend games as a fan, but he also began doing ancillary work for the organization, preparing stats for beloved Hawks play-by-play man Dean Vrooman. Kemper used to joke that if their color analyst ever left, he'd happily take his job. Soon thereafter, that's exactly what happened.
When the position opened up in 2004, Kemper suggested to Vrooman — whom he'd gotten to know fairly well — that he was the man for the job. Although Kemper had no broadcasting experience, Vrooman gave him a tryout, and before he knew it, the life-long fan was now an employee of the team, talking about the game he'd grown to love.
"Dean gave me an opportunity, and it was a pretty gracious one, since I didn't really have any background broadcasting," Kemper said. "But I knew the game, and he understood that. And I was good at verbalizing what I saw, and I just kind of rolled from there."
And how did it go?
"It felt pretty natural to me," he said. "I've been talking hockey my whole life, so it was just a matter of understanding there were a bunch of people listening to me on the radio."
Kemper also works for Axiom Electronics, a Hillsboro company that focuses on building high-reliability, mission-critical electronics for a number of different industries, primarily aerospace.
For the last 15 years, Kemper "talked hockey." During that time, he's seen a lot of wins, a lot of losses, championships and some relatively lean years. But what he hasn't seen are games with his family, and as a guy whose childhood was built so much on the back of just that, he desperately wanted his own child to experience a little of the same.
The now-broadcast veteran has a wife, Vicki, and a 17-year-old daughter, Aiden, who are Winterhawk fanatics as well. But even though they are big fans and regular attendees at games, Vicki and Aiden have been separated from their husband and dad by the broadcast booth.
"I just want to spend more time with my family," said Kemper. "My daughter is 17 and is going into her senior year, and I really want to spend the year with her planning and visiting colleges, and also just want to watch a game with her. I haven't done that since she was 3."
The love of hockey is important to share, Kemper explained.
"My dad passed it on to me, I passed it on to (Aiden), and hopefully, she'll get to pass it on to her family later on," Kemper said.
He remarked, "This year's about spending time with her and my wife, watching games, and really enjoying their company while the opportunity is still there."
So that's what he'll do. But while he's no longer on the air, Kemper won't be severing all ties with the organization, as he'll be acting as the franchise's "team historian," which will entail maintaining and accumulating statistics for the team record book and media guide.
And will he ever go on the air again?
"I'll primarily be maintaining records and keeping them up to date," he said. "But I may do some occasional historical bits to keep my voice out there."
And how about the franchise? With occasional chatter about Portland getting an NHL franchise, conventional wisdom suggests that a major league team could spell the end of the junior hockey team's time in the Rose City. While it's not something Kemper spends much time thinking about, he is clear about his desire to see the Winterhawks stay in Portland.
"Personally, I really enjoy junior hockey, so it would be a shame to lose the Winterhawks if the NHL came," Kemper said. "I'd love for the Winterhawks to stay here as long as possible. These kids are playing for their careers and they play hard every night. It's fun to watch them come in at 16 and leave when they're 19 or 20. To see that development is cool and separates junior hockey from the pro level."
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