SAN JOSE, Calif. – Phil Kessel turned to the Pittsburgh Penguins fans amassed near the glass at SAP Center in San Jose, the ones that had just watched him skate the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career after the Penguins’ Game 6 victory over the Sharks.
“Yeah, it was way heavier than I thought it was going to be,” said Kessel, laughing.
They chanted his name. He let out a guttural yell and pumped his fist at them, and in turn they yelled right back. Mutual admiration. Mutual adulation.
“The city of Pittsburgh is great. They have awesome fans. And they were behind us, right?” he said. “This last year has been a crazy year. And it’s obviously been the best year of my life.”
A year ago, Kessel was in limbo. Regime change had arrived for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His $8 million salary, and his almost comical scape-goating in the Toronto media, made it a near-certainty he’d be traded. The Washington Capitals were mentioned a possibility. Ditto the Nashville Predators, where his ties to USA Hockey architect David Poile would have made sense. (Indeed, what a difference a year makes.)
Instead, it was the Pittsburgh Penguins who surprised the NHL by acquiring him on July 1. And with that trade came a phone call from his new captain, Sidney Crosby.
“He said they’re excited to have me, and we’re going to try and win a Cup,” Kessel said. “And we got it done. How could you ask for anything better than this? Winning the Cup is what you dream about, by far. And we did it.”
As the Penguins players lingered on the ice in celebration, Kessel found teammates Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, the fabled “HBK Line” that sparked the team’s offense, managed to lure professional wrestler Shawn Michaels to a Stanley Cup playoff game and inspired a triple-meat sandwich that somehow didn’t become yet another Phil Kessel conditioning punchline. (Indeed, what a difference a year makes.)
Kessel finished with 10 goals and 12 assists. Carl Hagelin had six goals and 10 assists. Nick Bonino had four goals and 14 assists. Kessel fell short of the Conn Smythe himself; perhaps if they had one for lines, the HBK trio would have secured it.
Kessel said his linemates were on his mind has he hoisted the Cup. “I thought about my teammates, how hard we worked. And how proud I am of them. We played together. We played for each other,” he said.
“You never dream this is going to happen. And then it did.”
Jim Rutherford is the man who put that line together: Trading for all three players within the last year. In Kessel’s case, the acquisition was criticized, especially when he didn’t immediately meet the unrealistic expectations placed on him.
“One aspect that became clear when Kessel was with the Leafs was he was not the kind of star player that elevated the play of his teammates.”
“He’s a special player. It’s hard to score goals in this league. We wanted to add a goal-scorer. And when Malkin got hurt down the stretch, and it was still within question as to who would be in the playoffs, Phil Kessel really was an impact player for us. And then all through the playoffs again,” said Rutherford.
“I’m so happy for him. His years in this League haven’t been easy. Now he’s got his name on the Cup.”
That he does.
Phil Kessel. Stanley Cup champion. Let that sink in.
“He’s gone through so much in his career. He’s such a great player, such a great guy. He deserves it,” said goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who celebrated with Kessel after the game.
Should he take the Cup to Toronto?
Zatkoff laughed. “I don’t know. You can ask him that one.”
Kessel’s still trying to figure out where to take it in Madison, Wisconsin, to celebrate with family.
“Yeah, I don’t know where it’s going. I still have to decide,” he said, with a laugh. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s emotional. You work your whole life for this. It’s very special. You think of family, a lot. They sacrifice to get you here.”
What Kessel takes a measure of pride that he never sacrificed what got him to the NHL in an effort to appease critics. Did he add things to his game? Sure. Did he adapt to what the Penguins asked him to be? Absolutely.
“But I never changed my game. Obviously, I’m the same guy I’ve always been,” he said. “Go out there, try my best. And this year, it worked out really well.”
Is there any redemption for in him in this, then? Any satisfaction in showing up the critics around the NHL, and especially up north?
Kessel thought about it for a moment.
“I’m a Stanley Cup winner now,” was his reply.
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