By Shelly Anderson
He got chirped by the president. Then he jokingly ran for president. Winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh certainly has elevated Phil Kessel’s lot in life in unexpected ways.
Kessel was seen by some as sullen and surly during his six seasons with Toronto, but his first year-plus since the Penguins traded for him in July 2015 has been super. He helped Pittsburgh win the Cup, leading the team with 10 goals and 22 points in 24 playoff games, and had a strong start this season averaging nearly a point per game. He has won over his teammates and jettisoned any lingering angst or ugliness he might have felt toward Toronto. It was a big transition in a short time heavily facilitated by his new club’s success.
“I mean, it’s pretty easy, isn’t it?” Kessel said, smiling and laughing – a side of the right winger Maple Leafs fans likely would not recognize.
Kessel harbors no ill will toward Toronto.
“I love the city,” he said. “It’s a good city.”
In July, he took the Cup to Toronto, visiting The Hospital for Sick Children. Three months later, Kessel spiffed up for the Penguins’ Oct. 6 visit to the White House. He got red-cheeked and laughed with everyone else when President Barack Obama opened with this line aimed at someone who had barely sniffed the post-season before last spring: “We are here to celebrate an extraordinary achievement – Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion.”
He’s a Cup champion who was overlooked by Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey. It’s unclear whether Kessel would have been ready after having off-season hand surgery, but it was still seen as a snub. Kessel rolled with it. The night the Americans played, and lost to, Canada, he tweeted this zinger: “Just sitting around the house tonight with my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn’t put my finger on it.”
Then, in the pre-season, cameras followed Kessel, 29, during a day of team photo sessions. He good-naturedly poked fun at himself for being tired and for looking like he was balding in some of the shots.
The topper came when Kessel provided some levity the day before the presidential election when he tweeted a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt touting, “Phil for president…Nice guy. Tries Hard. Loves the Game.”
Teammate Tom Sestito stumbled upon the shirts online at Sin Bin Hockey and ordered several. His teammates got a huge kick out of the stunt, though they aren’t all sure he’s quite ready to hold the highest office.
“Uh, yeah, I don’t know,” captain Sidney Crosby said, barely able to talk because he was laughing hard. “I love the shirt, though.”
Kessel’s teammates have embraced him completely.
“Dry sense of humor,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. “I think with us he can relax and be himself. He seems pretty reserved, and then he takes pictures of himself in that shirt and puts it on Twitter, all serious looking. It was funny stuff. He’s a funny dude.”
One who is perfectly willing to be, or even set himself up as, the fall guy when it comes to jokes. “He’s got pretty thick skin,” Crosby said. “He’s pretty good about it.”
Unlike Crosby, winger Carl Hagelin was sold on the Phil for President idea. “I would have voted for Phil, yeah,” said Hagelin, who is Swedish. “Phil’s the man. He’s a funny guy. He’s a great teammate. You just like seeing him when he comes to the rink.”
The now famous ‘HBK Line’ of Kessel, Hagelin and Nick Bonino has played together only at times this season, but Kessel has continued to produce – just not in his usual way. Through Friday, he led the team with 28 assists, dishing up perfect saucer passes and setting up teammates for deflections.
“Phil has that great release, but he also can find those little soft passes,” said winger Chris Kunitz. “He’s really good at being deceptive and throwing people off.”
Kessel insisted it isn’t a new aspect of his game: “I try to make the right play. That’s about it. I’ve always felt like if there’s a pass, I’m going to make the pass. If I feel like I can shoot it, I’m going to shoot it, right?”
Kessel has scored 30 or more goals five times and is closing in on 300 for his career, but he is off his standard pace so far. He was averaging 2.83 shots per game, down from his career average of 3.37. That concerned coach Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan chatted with Kessel in early November to deliver a message. “He is a very good passer and a very good playmaker, but we think when he’s at his very best, he’s thinking shot first,” Sullivan said. “He’s choosing to distribute versus shooting the puck. We’d like to see him shoot a little more.”
At least Kessel has shown a willingness to shoot more from the lip, much to the delight of his teammates.