The moment Ryan Kesler slipped on an Anaheim Ducks jersey, he felt a rush of excitement. Beneath it all, however, was an undercurrent of anxiety.
Kesler’s time as a Vancouver Canuck was up. The team needed a fresh start and so did he. But a cross-conference trade, or at least one out of his division, would’ve been a bit less awkward. Instead, he ended up a Duck, where he’d join forces with some of his mortal Pacific Division enemies, like a picked-on kid paired off with the class bullies for a school project.
The Ducks belong to captain Ryan Getzlaf and sniper Corey Perry, both of whom have traded blows with Kesler in the past. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Getzlaf rag-dolled the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Kesler in Dec. 2008, and Perry threw down with Kesler in 2009 and 2010. Both Perry-Kesler tilts happened in the pre-season. That’s when you know there’s bad blood. So Kesler, understandably, didn’t know what to expect after the trade. But the Ducks quickly let him know bygones were bygones – their leader in particular.
“Ryan Getzlaf, really great captain, really great guy,” Kesler said. “But, really, all the guys made me feel at home. They were all welcoming. That was my biggest thing, playing against those guys, being in a rivalry against those guys. You develop hate towards them. But off the ice, they’re all good dudes and we got over it.”
Kesler said he, Getzlaf and Perry reminisced about their fights and had some laughs. But washing away bad blood is just one hurdle a player must overcome after a trade. The simple change of scenery is life-altering.
“There is a bit of anxiety getting traded for the first time in my career, having to find kids schools, having to find a home, having to figure out the car situations,” Kesler said. “There are so many things off-ice that people really don’t understand when you get traded. It’s not just moving teams. I moved countries (laughs). That’s why we came down here so early, to get all that situated before the season starts. I feel pretty much settled in now.”
There’s also the matter of expectations: the Ducks acquired Kesler to put them over the top in their Stanley Cup chase. He and Getzlaf give Anaheim a 1-2 punch up the middle to counter that of juggernauts like L.A., who ice Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. Anaheim wants the Kesler who scored 41 goals, won the Selke Trophy and helped lead Vancouver to Game 7 of the Cup final in 2010-11. He’s remained reliable as a two-way presence since then – based on opponent Corsi, he was used against the toughest competition of any Canuck last year – but he’s lost his scoring touch, with just 54 goals in his past 185 games.
Kesler knows he’s under pressure to perform. But he always feels pressure, because he holds himself to such a high standard. The bigger fear for him is that his body won’t co-operate enough for him to deliver. His gritty style has ravaged his 30-year-old body. Broken finger, broken foot, hip surgery, shoulder surgery – you name it and Kesler’s had it. He’d fit seamlessly into that scene in Jaws where everyone compares scars. It’s thus fair to wonder if fear of the next injury follows him around on the ice. But the proud Kesler squashes that idea.
“It’s worse when you play with an injury than coming back,” he said. “But coming back, I never really had that fear of re-injury. The way I play, I can’t be tentative out there, because that’s when you’re going to hurt yourself again, right? You’ve got to just be confident and be ready. The majority of guys will probably come back too early, but that’s just our lifestyle. We’re used to playing hurt. Everybody in the league probably has something going into the playoffs. It’s just how big of a something.
“You get injured, you heal up, and you come back. I have to play the same way, I have to play in your face and balls-out, right?”
Maybe he has a point. When Kesler’s been at his best throughout his career, he’s played with one distinct trait: fearlessness.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin