Phil Kessel is the NHL’s unlikely Ironman
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Last night in San Jose, Vegas Golden Knights forward Phil Kessel played his 990th straight regular season game, breaking the NHL record set by Keith Yandle last season. Given the 35-year-old Kessel’s relatively limp physique and legendary questionable diet, his rise to the NHL Ironman title has to be one of hockey’s most unlikely feats. But there is more to Kessel than meets the eye. In honor of his back-to-back streak and his 400th NHL goal, which he scored last night, here are some fun facts about Phil:
He’s an amazing athlete… Kessel’s 5-foot-11, 208-pound (for a professional hockey player) mushy body and hair loss belies serious physical gifts. Before entering the NHL, the talented Wisconsinite was touted as America’s next big star. He had 286 points in 86 games at the bantam level, then had 51 points in 39 games as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Minnesota in 2005-06. That same season, he beat Russian phenom Evgeni Malkin for the World Junior Championship scoring title with 11 points in seven games. The scouts called Kessel the fastest player in the tournament and were thrilled with his shot. A few months later, the Boston Bruins drafted him fifth overall. Sixteen years later, he is one of 12 American-born players to reach the 400-goal mark.
…and not just on the hockey rink. Besides his prowess on the ice, his teammates rave about Kessel’s abilities in the weight room, on the golf course, and even in more cardiovascularly demanding sports like basketball and soccer. « He’s incredibly athletic, » former teammate Blake Wheeler told Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford. « He’s the kind of guy who, he’s good at everything he does. » Of all the testimonials from guys who have played with him, Kessel is also easy going.
The beginning of his professional career was marred by health problems. Here’s another reason why the idea of »Phil Kessel: Ironman » once seemed so unlikely. A few months into his rookie season with the Bruins, Kessel underwent surgery for testicular cancer. But he returned to the roster a month later and played in almost every game for Boston the rest of that season and the next 82 (perhaps an early indication of Ironman in the making). Kessel missed a dozen games in 2008-09, after which he was traded to Toronto. His debut with the Leafs was delayed due to offseason shoulder surgery that saw him miss the first 12 games. Kessel finally adapted for Toronto on November 3, 2009. He hasn’t missed a game since.
The Ironman streak spans almost 13 years and four teams. Despite averaging more than 30 goals per season (including a shortened lockout) during his six years with the Leafs, Kessel’s tenure there ended badly, as his laid-back personality proved a difficult adjustment with Toronto’s tightly knit fans, media and organization. After the Leafs traded him to Pittsburgh as part of a salary waiver during the 2015 offseason, Kessel got the last laugh by quickly winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. Sidney Crosby won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP both years, but Kessel had a strong record in 2016 when he led the Penguins in goals (10) and points (22). He also excelled the following year, scoring eight goals and 23 points in the playoffs. After Pittsburgh, Kessel spent three years in the wilderness (literally and metaphorically) with humble Arizona, where he had a respectable 52 points last season. Say what you want about the Coyotes (and we did), but they helped Kessel maintain his streak last March by allowing him to play just one shift in a game in Detroit before hopping on a charter flight arranged by the team so he can join his longtime girlfriend for the birth of their first child. If you count playoff games, Kessel has now played 1,071 consecutive games. To put that into perspective, only 9% of current NHL players were in the league when his streak began in November 2009.
Yes, his diet could use a little work. Although he became a father about eight months ago, Kessel has been sporting a daddy body for quite some time, thanks in part to his notorious taste for junk food. Toronto sportswriter Steve Simmons is still getting soaked for his longstanding accusation that Kessel frequented the city’s hot dog stands too much (a dig that Phil delightfully trolled after winning the Cup), but there is at least a (popcorn) kernel of truth to this possibly apocryphal story. At a time when many professional athletes are extremely careful about what they eat, Kessel’s teammates talk about a Sour Patch Kids fanatic whose dorm at the Sochi Olympics was littered with candy wrappers and who loved to drink Coke between periods. But that propensity to pick is a feature, not a bug, when it comes to Kessel’s appeal. His Hall of Fame record may be a little thin, as he never came close to winning a major individual award in the regular season, but hockey fans never seem to get enough of Phil.