We need to talk about Phil Kessel needing to talk

Greg Wyshynski
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his goal against the Boston Bruins during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, in Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his goal against the Boston Bruins during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, in Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

It was Summer 2013, in the bowels of the Washington Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington, Virginia. Phil Kessel was one of a few dozen NHL players attending U.S. Olympic development camp, meeting his coaches and his teammates before the Sochi Games.

He also met the media, which is something Phil Kessel doesn’t always like to do. 

But he did on this afternoon. Not for a minute of clichéd answers and forced insight, as is his norm, but for well over 40 minutes of chatting. About hockey, sure, but more so about life: traffic in Toronto, outdoor cooking, other varied subjects. Just one guy holding court with a few writers in an empty room. No blinding lights from LEAFS TV or banks of microphones. No one crowding his stall or his style.

This interview has sorta become my Roswell Crash for Phil Kessel’s relationship with the media, which is that I can swear I saw it happen even if there’s no overwhelming evidence that it did, and skeptics will point to mountains of counterevidence to prove that it couldn’t have, because Phil Kessel hates the media.

But to quote Fox Mulder’s famous post: “I WANT TO BELIEVE.”

I want to believe that’s really Kessel, away from all the intensity of the spotlight. I want to believe he understands our jobs in the media, as much as he understands his role in this ongoing narrative as a star athlete. I want to believe he understands that catching breaks from the media is directly connected to how one works with the media. That goes for Game 17 of the regular season as much as it goes for the Hall of Fame selection committee.

The catalyst for this discussion of Phil Kessel and the media (Vol. 342) was his blowing off Jonas Siegal of TSN after the Toronto Maple Leafs hurt the Sabres’ lottery chances with a 6-2 loss to Buffalo on Saturday.

Kessel was quoted as saying “get away from me” as he “angrily” stormed off after the game. This was cathartic to some and insulting to others, namely they guy who asked the question. Siegal explained on TSN Radio today that he had waited out Kessel after he didn’t speak after the game, and then was blown off trying to catch him in the hallway.

“If he wants to do things like this that's totally OK. But from this point, I'm not going to hide the way that he acts anymore,” said Siegel.

“He's perpetually unavailable. He’s perpetually, borderline rude. This stuff happens a lot, maybe not to this degree. There's an undercurrent with Kessel and the media. He's obviously has made it very clear that he doesn't like it. I don't think it has to do with anything on the ice, I don't know if the team cares about it. But you have to treat people and you've got to understand what parts of your job are. Players are obligated to talk to the media, in some cases they’re not going to want to do it.”

Kessel did talk on Monday, saying: “I think you have the responsibility to talk, but I don't think you guys need me every single day."

It’s a constant push/pull with reporters and athletes when it comes to quotes following games. The media knows the hotter the moment, the better for a potential page-turner of a quote. The players know the same thing, so rather than engage in a conversation about losing significantly to the worst team in organized hockey at the moment, Kessel’s all like “buzz off,” and talks about it a few days later.

I’ve never been a beat writer. I give those men and women enormous credit for dealing with the travel, the deadlines and those nights when the Phil Kessels of the League want to give the blow-off. It sucks that a good, fair reporter like Siegel has to do a shoot interview on TSN because he’s tired of covering up Kessel’s abject prickishness to the media.

I’ve also never been a pro athlete (readers: “Thanks, Cap’t Obvious…”), but I give them enormous credit for having every aspect of their job, attitude and character under daily scrutiny from those inside the locker room after games and those that choose not to venture there. I give them credit for answering the droning, inane questions of the television media who waste the first five minutes of any scrum collecting their general sound bytes (“How does it FEEL to bliggity bloggity bloo bloo?”) before the print media gets specific, and then humoring the same questions from the same guys after the same situations.

This is usually the part where fans will exclaim, “It’s not their job to answer these things!” or “only the media cares when they don’t!” or “all I care about is what they do on the ice, not what they say!”

The latter point is valid for Kessel: I don’t know a single soul who cares more about his response to a Steve Simmons column than his scoring 40 goals. We could hold séances to find dead souls that might, but I think that’s a waste of time and supernatural resources, too.

As a Leafs fan, I might not care about Kessel’s relationship with the media. But as a hockey fan, I do.

I go back to that room last summer in D.C. Hearing an insightful, offbeat guy talking candidly. Some players have nothing to offer when it comes to the conversation, because they’re dumb jocks that are as introspective as a beverage coaster. But we all know Phil’s not like that, and that’s where it gets frustrating for me: I find him intriguing, unique and hard to figure. I like what he has to say, because he’s funny in that casual, Lebowski-esque way, and that attitude is the antidote to canned quotes and boring platitudes.  I care infintely more about the guy who'd rather be back in the condo pounding beer and playing xBox with Bozak than learning a new system, because I AM THAT GUY TOO. 

So it bothers me when Kessel blows off the media, not because he’s being entitled but because I actually care about hearing more from him on a variety of subjects and situations than Dumb Jock.

He doesn’t want to be that guy. I get it. The Toronto media gets it, too, but the problem is that he’s one of the best hockey players on the planet. And with great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben once said. (Ben Parker. Not the rice guy.) To that end, there’s an obligation to talk, maybe more than Kessel would like to admit.

Everyone blessed with stardom in his league – especially an American player – has to do his part in promoting the game, and playing ball with the media is part of that promotion.

This speaks directly to those fans that say they don’t care what Kessel has to say after a game, or that postgame coverage is worthless, or that the media covering the postgame scrums is banal and insignificant. I find all of that criticism insincere, because those fans are the first to re-tweet a controversial quote or celebrate Joe Thornton’s zipper-opening whimsy or yearn for someone to say something that becomes a contentious bit between two rivals. Yes, I'm talking to you, fan who doesn't care what the players say: YOU TOTALLY DO. And it's the media that is at worst the conduit for the quote and at best the interragator that collects that quote. 

Does Kessel always need to talk? No. Do I wish he’d talk more? Yes. Does he need to? At this point the media knows what it’s getting, but insofar as the world’s a better place when Kessel opens up, then yes.

Why doesn’t he? That’s the odd part. He obviously acknowledges and cares about coverage. The fact that he’s proven himself to be a Hart worthy sniper on an elite level has stifled many of his media critics. Increased interaction with, and participation in, the media would continue to improve that coverage.

But let’s be honest: Kessel’s frosty relationship with the media has actually served him well.

He’s a player whose likeability has grown exponentially over the years after the nadir of his last pick in the all-star fantasy draft. Outside of Roberto Luongo, has there been a player who’s turned around more critics than Kessel in the last few years? I don’t think there is, and one reason is that he’s seen as sympathetic in contrast with the hounding, critical, mountain-out-of-molehill media in Toronto.

Thanks to his star status as an offensive talent, he’s dealing from the F.U. deck at the moment with the media. He says “get away from me,” and the fans echo the sentiment. So while the more Phil Kessel says to the media, the better it is for hockey, the less Phil Kessel says to the media, the better it is for Phil Kessel.

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