PITTSBURGH – Phil Kessel is a fun guy.
“Sneaky funny,” according to Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Patric Hornqvist. “He’s always in such a good mood. He always has a smile on his face. Just a great guy. And then on the ice, he can shoot the puck like no one else.”
The last part has never been in dispute. Kessel is now, and has throughout his career, been one of the NHL’s most lethal snipers. From 2008 through this season, Kessel is fourth in the NHL in goals scored with 243 in 598 games, trailing only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry.
The rest of Hornqvist's assessment might come as a surprise to anyone that views Kessel as a locker room irritant. Or a disinterested party, unless it involves getting his coach fired. Or a prisoner of his own social awkwardness.
Maybe we don’t know Phil Kessel, because he doesn’t allow us to, and so the media and fans fill in the blanks like a disparaging Mad-Libs. So we speculate on perceived standards of fitness, and we speculate on perceived attitudinal issues, and allow his laidback comportment to be indicative of any number of character flaws.
And yet, this season, he’s been the antithesis of that public persona for the Penguins.
Phil Kessel is a fun guy.
“He’s funny to be around. Jokes around. Makes everything a little less serious, which calms me down before games,” said linemate Carl Hagelin.
But more than that, and more than ever, Phil Kessel is allowing himself to be Phil Kessel.
“It takes time to be yourself in any situation. You get to know guys. I came here having never really played with any of these guys this year before,” said Kessel, the Penguins’ leading goal scorer, on the eve of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. “We have a great group. We get along great.”
Take a moment to consider the origins of Phil Kessel, and the baggage he carries.
It started in college, at the University of Minnesota. At 17 years old, he could have gone as high as No. 2 overall in the 2005 NHL Draft. Then his stock dropped as did his ice time. Words like “selfish” started getting pinned to him, like a tail on Eeyore.
ESPN The Magazine published a piece that chronicled Kessel’s NHL draft combine experience, through the eyes of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ managerial staff.
There are other questions. About his relationships with teammates. About his rep as a party guy. Then Boyd goes directly to the scouting report. "How would you respond to this: 'A little bit immature, needs to work a little harder in the gym, practice a little harder, needs to learn some social skills, people skills.' We'll leave it at that."
Kessel's voice falls to a whisper. "I'd say, okay...yeah a little bit...some of that stuff...it's a little hard...work on some of that stuff, I guess."
It's over soon after that. Kessel looks disheartened as he leaves. MacLean looks sad. "If what they're saying about this kid isn't true, it's criminal. Because I don't know if I ever heard the negative stuff like I have with this kid."
The Boston Bruins drafted him fifth overall and soon signed him to an NHL deal. When asked by USA TODAY about that ESPN piece, Kessel lamented: "That's not me. It's hard to deal with, especially in a big publication like that. I'm an emotional person, and when something comes out about you and it's not true, it hurts."
That was in August 2006. Four months later, Kessel was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and had his right testicle removed to ensure that it didn’t spread. Kessel dedicated time, game tickets and one infamous prize for being picked last in an NHL fantasy draft to cancer organizations in the wake of that diagnosis.
The 2009 Phil Kessel Trade ended his time in Boston, as the Bruins were hesitant to break the bank for him after his rookie deal was over. The Toronto Maple Leafs positioned themselves to sign Kessel to an offer sheet – as chronicled here by Adam Gretz – but ended up trading its 2010 first and second round picks and its 2011 first-round pick for Kessel. And we all know how that worked out for the Bruins and for the Leafs.
How did it work out for Kessel? Well, as Gretz wrote, it “wasted Kessel's prime years by surrounding him with a dumpster fire of a hockey team.” And in the process, it created an environment where Phil Kessel lost himself in the cesspool of disappointment, frustration, blame-gaming and character assassination.
The “hot dog stand” tale spun by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun shall forever live on for hockey fans, like a wiener slowly boiling in its own fatty water. The comedic stylings of Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star included the TRADE KESSEL column of June 2013; the time he used an assistant coach’s comments at an offseason clinic to crucify Kessel as un-coachable; the time he confronted Kessel with that theory when Randy Caryle was fired, and Kessel called him an idiot and stormed out of the dressing room; and when he said Kessel’s value dropped so far that he couldn’t be traded, referring to another grown man as “No. 81, His Royal Highness of the Half Efforts, Baron of Bad Body Language, Sultan of Diddly Squat.”
Well, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford wanted to trade for him, and did so last summer.
It’s not every player that goes from having actual cancer to being labeled one in the locker room over the span of nine years, all while being one of the single most dominant offensive players in the NHL.
But this was Phil Kessel’s journey, and he wouldn’t be Phil Kessel had he not taken it.
“Throughout your life and career, little moments shape your life. I am who I am because of what’s shaped my life,” he said.
Phil Kessel is a fun guy.
“Sometimes on a team, you have groups that tend to be separated in different groups,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. “But we’ve got Phil. He wants to hang out with everybody, wants to have fun. It kind of brings everybody together when you have a guy that played that many games in the league.”
Kessel has nine points and nine assists in 18 games for the Penguins the postseason. His play is the result of Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan finding a fit for him on a line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino – the famed HBK Line – and playing a fast-skating style to gives Kessel the open ice he needs to create chances.
“I’ve always put up decent numbers in the regular season. It doesn’t go well for stretches. That’s part of the game. In the playoffs, every game matters, and you have to be ready for every one,” Kessel said. “I don’t think I’ve changed. I play the way I’ve always have. It’s hard to change your game, right? When you’ve been in this league for this long. But you always change little things along the way.”
Kessel, a.k.a. Toronto Maple Leafs Coach Killer, has been receptive to those “little” changes this season, according to coach Mike Sullivan.
“I think he's made great strides over the last couple of months in some of the areas of his game where we've asked him to improve and get better. I think he's made a commitment to play away from the puck. I think he's playing much smarter in his own end zone. I think his offense speaks for itself. We try to stay out of his way when he has the puck. He certainly has way better instincts than the coaching staff does. That's what makes him the elite player that he is,” he said.
“We tried to challenge him in his game away from the puck, trying to become the two-way player that is so necessary to help us win playoff games. Phil, to his credit, has been very receptive. I think he's made great strides, and I think our team has really been the great benefactor because he's had such an influence on the success that this team has enjoyed to this point.”
That influence extends off the ice, where the Penguins say Kessel’s personality fit well with what the team needed. Which is interesting, when you consider how poorly ‘laid back and quirky’ played in Toronto.
Hornqvist said he felt Kessel was misunderstood.
“He always has a mic under his face all the time in Toronto, and they didn’t do as well as they wanted. They always have a guy to pick, and he’s always the guy who had to stand there and answer the same question night after night, and that’s gets tired after five or 10 years,” he said.
And it gets tired for some reporters, too, when Kessel doesn’t exhibit the competitive fire or ‘leadership’ qualities that are standard-issue for the role of franchise player.
Hell, even a few days after Kessel was snubbed by his own nation’s hockey braintrust – including Brian Burke – for a spot on the Team USA World Cup of Hockey squad, all he could muster was “obviously you’re always disappointed, but it is what it is.” Not exactly a volcanic response.
But at this point, Phil doesn’t need to be angry, because something unexpected has happened in the dynamic between Kessel and Kessel’s supporters among fans, peers and in the media (mostly the ones floating outside the Centre of the Hockey Universe).
Phil doesn’t get outraged over a World Cup snub, so we’re outraged for him, as Kessel received a digital metric ton of texts and calls after Dean Lombardi and Co. left him off the U.S. roster.
Phil doesn’t get to refute every generalization made about his personality or his game, so we’ve acted like a Truth Squad on his behalf, heralding his accomplishments.
And when Phil positions himself to within four wins and a few more points of the Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup ring, he doesn’t have to be the one who says ‘told you so.’
We’re doing it for him.
We're letting Phil be Phil. Which is great. Because Phil Kessel is a fun guy.
“I’ve been treated great here. I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said. “It’s easy when you’re winning."
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