He arrived in the National Hockey League described as brash, a prima donna and self-focused. He was an early contender to be selected first overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, but questions about his character and work ethic dropped him to fifth overall, where the Boston Bruins were happy to take the former Minnesota Golden Gopher.
Two months into his rookie season, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Less than a month later he returned to the Bruins and promptly went on to record a hat trick in the 2007 YoungStars Game in Dallas. His perseverance in fighting cancer and return to the NHL made Kessel a feel-good choice as that season's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy winner.
Fast-forward to Saturday night against the Atlanta Thrashers, where Phil Kessel extended his consecutive games played streak to 155 and scored his 19th goal of the season, matching his career high. Today, Kessel was named the NHL's "first star" of last week.
What's been the difference this season?
His coach, Claude Julien, says he sees a big difference between the Phil Kessel of 2006 and the one he gets to watch on a nightly basis:
"Third year in the league, he is more mature and his whole game is starting to round out a little bit better," Julien said. "He has always been good with his hands and his shot and his speed, but there was more that he needed to learn. He is much better without the puck, which has given him more opportunities.
"When you don't cheat, you come back and you do the job. You recover the puck quicker and you go on the attack and I think he has understood that concept very well. Scoring goals has helped his confidence, and he knows he can score goals, so all those things put together and a young player needs time to develop and we have given him that."
This is the same Phil Kessel that was touted as having explosive speed, great vision, and hockey sense before he entered the NHL in 2006. After a few speed bumps, we're finally seeing the hype come to fruition, despite being benched in last year's playoffs for being a liability on defense.
"There were growing pains for me my rookie year," Kessel said recently. "This year, it's clicking a little more. I think part of it has to do with my linemates, setting me up in good spots."
The kid is 21-years old and obviously matured after a wakeup call from testicular cancer.
When hockey fans complain about the NHL failing to market its players, take a look at the last two weeks of headlines. It's been all Sean Avery. Now that that situation seems to be on its last legs, the story of Phil Kessel is one that not just Boston Bruins fans should be reading about.