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Sky’s the limit for Canucks’ Ryan Kesler

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

Finally, about 2:30 a.m., the phone rang. As usual, Dad was asleep, but Mom was awake, lying in bed, tossing and turning, waiting for their son Ryan Kesler(notes) to call as he still does after virtually every game he plays.

Linda Kesler knew the call would come late Tuesday night. Ryan suffered a leg injury, so he needed treatment. He scored the tying goal with 13.2 seconds left in regulation, so he had to do interviews. The Canucks won 3-2 in double overtime in Vancouver, so the game didn’t end until about 1 a.m. Detroit time.

She waited. She couldn’t wait.

Then the phone rang, and it was Ryan. She can’t remember anything in particular he said. She wishes she could. She can remember only one thing.

“It’s the most excited I’ve ever heard him,” she said. “Usually he’s just real low-key, and I usually ask the mom questions: ‘Are you hurt? Are you Okay?’ I always tell him I think he played a good game, because I think he always does. But it was just ... It’s just unreal. I never would have dreamt this. I was just as excited. I just yelled into the phone, ‘Congratulations! I’m so excited for you.’ It’s just a dream come true for him.”

The Canucks are playing the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final. It has been a long time coming for the teams and the towns. The Canucks haven’t made the Cup final since 1994 and have never won the Cup since joining the NHL in 1970. The Bruins haven’t made the Cup final since 1990 and haven’t won the Cup since 1972. But it has been a long time coming for many of the players, too.

After the Canucks eliminated the San Jose Sharks and the confetti rained from the rafters at Rogers Arena on Tuesday night, a reporter asked Ryan – all grown up now at 26, a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player – if he had envisioned winning the Cup the way Canadian boys do.

“Yeah,” Ryan said with a smile. “I was only a half-hour away from Canada, so that’s been my dream since I was a little kid, and we’re finally doing it.”

* * * * *

Ryan Kesler grew up in Livonia, Mich., a Detroit suburb about a 25-minute drive to two Canadian border crossings. It was there that he and his older brother, Todd, played with mini-sticks and mini-nets while their sister, Jennifer, cheered on the sidelines. “They would literally play for hours,” said his father, Mike Kesler, “and it was always for the Stanley Cup.”

It was there that his quiet intensity first came out, where he began developing into the top two-way player he is today, where he gained that chip on his shoulder – and where he still returns over the phone or in person to feel at home.

He was 4 when his father, a former college player and longtime youth hockey coach, now a scout for the U.S. national team development program, first took him onto the ice.

“He grabbed my hand, went around the rink once, and then he said, ‘Dad, I don’t need your hand anymore,’ ” his father said.

As he grew, his father taught him how to skate – edges, crossovers, stride, power. He also taught him why to skate – that if you can skate well you can catch people from behind, that you have to skate as hard coming back into your zone as you do into the offensive end. His father told him he would never judge his play based on goals and points, but he would hold him to a standard if Mom and Dad were going to drive all over the place so he could play hockey.

“I said, ‘I will demand that you give 100 percent barring injury or illness. You’ve always got to work hard,’ ” his father said.

His father wasn’t always sure he would. He had put together a program of basic off-ice drills, but he said Ryan never really wanted to do them. “It was like I was pushing him,” Mike said. “I said, ‘Ryan, for you to get the benefit out of this, you have to understand the importance of it and you have to be willing to do it, not because I’m your dad telling you that you have to do it. You have to really in your heart want to do it and understand what it’s going to do for you.’ ”

Ryan told Sports Illustrated that if he didn’t give his best effort in a game, he would have to do “the basement drill” when he got home – full gear, no skates, basically a half-hour of cardio – and he didn’t like it at the time.

At one point, Ryan’s grandfather, Robert Kesler, asked Ryan’s father what he thought. Can Ryan really play? How far can he go? Ryan’s father was frank. He told him that Ryan had the talent to play at a high level – thinking college, not the NHL – but needed one thing to get him over the hump. “I said … ‘I don’t know if he has the heart and the willingness to compete and understand how important it is and how hard you’ve got to play every single shift – no matter how much talent you have – to really excel,’ ” his father said.

Ryan went through a rough period when he was about 12 and 13. He suffered Osgood-Schlatter disease, a rupture of the growth plate in his knees, a painful condition not uncommon among young athletes. He bounced between some of the Detroit area’s elite youth hockey programs for various reasons. He became so frustrated that, according to his father, he considered quitting the sport.

But he didn’t quit. His father had told him he could prove people right by giving up the game, or he could prove them wrong. He started looking at ingredients on boxes of food – carbs, fat grams. He started asking for training books and doing off-ice work on his own. His father coached him for one season, and then he made a team that, according to his father, hadn’t invited him to a 47-player tryout the year before. He led that team in scoring with 117 points in 72 games.

Heart? Now he was earning a reputation as a heart-and-soul player. He made the U.S. national team development program, based in nearby Ann Arbor, Mich. His junior and senior years of high school, he learned everything from how to fight to defend himself to how to perform when dog tired. Mike Eaves – then the coach of the U.S. 18-and-under team, now the coach at Wisconsin, told the Detroit Free Press: “The essence of Ryan is his will, his determination, his wanting to get better. He’s always looking for that edge, whether it’s mental or physical.”

Throughout all of this, Ryan’s mother never thought about the NHL. Even when college coaches starting calling, even when Ryan’s eventual agent assured her he would have a long NHL career, she didn’t believe it.

“I said, ‘Oh, it just can’t be,’ ” she said. “It’s probably because he was never the superstar on any of the teams he played on, because he didn’t score the goals. Everybody liked the player that scored all the big goals. Ryan was a playmaker. I think he was just never given the kudos.”

Reminded that Ryan is getting the kudos now, she laughed. “Yeah,” she said, “he sure is.”

* * * * *

When the Canucks came to play the Detroit Red Wings in March, their team bus pulled up to a ranch home in a suburban subdivision – Ryan Kesler’s house. He had asked his mother to make a home-cooked meal for the entire team.

“Can I cater it?” his mother asked, according to her recollection.

“No, Mom. A home-cooked meal.”

“Okay. We’ll pull this off.”

With help from family, friends and neighbors, the Keslers served the Canucks steak, pasta, turkey, vegetables, cheesy potatoes, you name it. While some kids waited outside for autographs, the players ate in the same basement where Ryan and his brothers used to play with their mini-sticks.

Ryan had come full circle. After a year at Ohio State and a steady climb in the pros – minor leagues to the NHL; fourth line to third line to the top six – he was now a team leader and a family man. He and his wife, Andrea, had a daughter, Makayla, 3, and an infant son, Ryker.

Once known as an agitator on the ice, Ryan had begun to keep more of an even keel, partly at the direction of management and coaching staff, partly because he didn’t want his young daughter asking why Daddy was sitting alone in the penalty box.

Ryan finished the regular season with 41 goals – 15 more than his career high. He became a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. After finishing second in the voting last year, he is the favorite to win it this year.

“He has more energy at the end of games now, because he’s focused on the play and not focused on the external stuff that’s going on,” Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said. “It’s a maturing process for everybody, and he’s part of the group, and I think we’re all better for it.”

In the first round of the playoffs, Ryan shut down another top two-way player, Jonathan Toews(notes), as the Canucks eliminated their nemeses, the Chicago Blackhawks. In the second round, he factored into 11 of the Canucks’ 14 goals as they beat the Nashville Predators, sparking teammate Alex Burrows to say: “He wants to be our leader. He wants to be our guy that leads us to the promised land.”

How badly does he want it? He took a puck in the face during one game against the Predators, but missed little time because he refused anesthetic while receiving seven stitches inside of his mouth and seven more outside of it.

“Ryan, was that not frozen?” his father asked, according to his recollection.

“No, there wasn’t enough time. I had to get back out.”

“Didn’t that hurt?”

“Dad, they’re putting a needle through your skin and in and out. You feel it. You feel every bit of it.”

In the Western Conference final, Ryan backchecked so hard against San Jose Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle(notes) on Tuesday night that he came up lame and dragged his left leg off the ice. His father turned to his mother and suggested he wouldn’t come back, not the way he went to the dressing room. But he did come back. He scored that dramatic tying goal and growled when a reporter asked if he could describe what he had gone through physically.

“I was battling, just like everybody else out there,” he said.

He didn’t sound much different when asked how it felt to make the Stanley Cup final.

“It feels good,” he said, “but it’s going to feel even better fighting to win it.”

Not just to win it. Fighting to win it.

Imagine if the Canucks do win it. Imagine the conversation Ryan Kesler will have with his parents after that game. Imagine the Cup party he might have back home.

His mother still can’t imagine it. She thought the ultimate was when he won silver with Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics last year. Could he win even sweeter silver in Vancouver this year?

“I mean, what else can he do?” Linda Kesler said. “He’s just a normal kid. We’re just a normal family. It just doesn’t seem like this should be happening, but it sure is.”

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