Phil Kessel has never been here for your shit. Which might be one of the reasons he’s going to break the consecutive games streak by playing in his 990th straight game tonight for Vegas.
Maybe more than any other sport, hockey demands you care. Not just care, but care in a certain way, especially when you make the big money, which Kessel basically has ever since he went to Toronto. All the observers want to see you yelling on the bench at your teammates, or getting in scraps after the whistle simply for the sake of it, or calling guys out in the press when things aren’t going the team’s way. They need you to act like the guy in the 500-level, because hockey still clings to the ideal that those two things are the same. When you play in Toronto, these things get multiplied two or threefold., which Kessel still has to carry, nearly a decade later.
Phil Kessel never gave a shit about any of that. He didn’t care about appearances, or even his own appearance to hear some tell it, which only enraged those who want to see players act like fans even more. In his perfect world, Kessel would have been left alone to do his job which he loves. And read stories like this one, or this one, and it’s clear how much Kessel has always loved to play.
You’d have to love to play to go through 990 games straight. Something always hurts, something always doesn’t work the way it should. There’s no way to get through even that many NHL seasons without feeling something. You can’t float that much through a hockey game and continue to have your coach send you out there, or continue to produce the way Kessel has for his entire career (he’s one goal away from 400 and 42 points away from 1,000). You can’t just “do a job” for this long without a break if it were just a job. A desire has to be pushing you through all the nicks and pains and soreness and wear.
Perhaps what hockey hates most, especially those who cover it, is when they’re covering someone who’s clearly just smarter than them and doesn’t really care what they have to say. Oh sure, Kessel got a little prickly in Toronto during his time there. But who wouldn’t? The organization was run by morons. He was coached by someone who couldn’t make toast. All he heard was that the 181 goals he put up in six seasons didn’t matter because the rest of the team was such a mangled swamp thing. Phil just wanted to score goals, because that was his job and that’s what the Leafs paid him to do, and he did it, and all he got for it was to answer questions about how he wasn’t enough or didn’t care or was out of shape. Dude missed 12 games in six years there, and had to listen to fat asses like Steve Simmons question what shape he was in.
Kessel always had the last laugh in that he didn’t really care about the noise, and didn’t feel the need to bow down to that level to justify his play or salary. He truly had the last laugh when he showed up in Pittsburgh and was a major cog in the first repeat Cup champs the league had seen in 20 years or so. No one in Pittsburgh had any complaints, except for maybe Evgeni Malkin, who didn’t want to play on a line with Kessel, which eventually got Kessel shipped out to Arizona. But Kessel had his rings, and the Pens haven’t sniffed one without him.
It is perhaps a little damning of hockey that it took Kessel playing nearly 1,000 games straight or to be productive this long for opinion to swing on him. He’s a cancer survivor, a sharp and witty guy whom his teammates consistently love, and even after all these games he’s still a player. Maybe his numbers slowed in Arizona, but whose don’t? Kessel had to carry the baggage out of Toronto, where everything is louder and heavier and reverberates throughout the hockey world, as well as the Bruins and their fans’ delight that they won a Cup as soon as he left for Toronto, in addition to Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton being two of the three draft picks they got for him (strangely, two players Bruins fans then quickly soured on as well, and saw them punted out of town, too). None of that has much to do with Kessel himself, but it’s still attached to him.
And yet Kessel has kept showing up to work, kept playing, and seemingly kept getting the last laugh. Remember the woeful U.S. World Cup team of 2016 that was specifically built to take penalties against Canada? There was Kessel to rightly point out they’d gotten everything wrong. Again, the hockey world recoiling at a player who knows better than most.
But to merely describe Kessel as someone who just kept showing up is to do him a disservice. He remained one of the fastest players in the league for most of his career. You can’t score as many goals as he did without knowing where to be, and his sneaky quick release has always fooled goaltenders. He also can’t be derided as someone who didn’t show up when it mattered, as his 81 points in 94 playoff games will attest, as well as piling up 45 points in Pittsburgh’s two Cup runs. It’s not his fault that Toronto could almost never provide games that mattered, nor did Arizona.
Perhaps what really rankled the grizzled hockey cognoscenti is that Kessel’s dry wit and lack of need to feed them the chum they crave is that it always felt like he knew more than they did. He probably does. Here he is, about to set the consecutive games record, which in itself is something of the ultimate last laugh. He was called just about everything under the sun, and yet he’s still here, still playing, still loving it, and now everyone else has run out of things to say. He’s a champion, he’ll be a Hall of Famer, and he’ll have his own record for a while. Phil Kessel won, in just about every way.