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Phil Kessel: A Hockey Cult Hero

The legend of Phil Kessel has continued during his time with the Arizona Coyotes. What makes the veteran sniper such a cult hero?
Phil Kessel

What makes Phil Kessel a cult hero? 

"You know, I get asked that question from my wife, my friends, my son, my daughters, everyone," laughed Arizona Coyotes head coach Andre Tourigny after morning skate on Thursday. 

"The people don't know Phil the right way. They know Phil from social media. That's not Phil."

Ask any player to offer a glimpse into the mystique of Phil Kessel and their answer comes with a curious caginess, with no one seemingly wanting to pull back the curtain on the most mysterious man in hockey. 

"I don't think I can get into that right now," joked Leafs forward Auston Matthews when asked to share his favorite Kessel experience. 

"It's not story time"

The one thing you actually can get out of those who've crossed Kessel's path, though, is how much they love him -- from his apparent non-stop chirping, to his love of golf, to the levity he injects into the day-to-day grind of an NHL season. 

"You won't find anyone around our team who will say anything bad about Phil," continued Tourigny. 

"He's probably the most popular guy in the room" 

Throughout his 16-year NHL career, Kessel's perception in the public eye has undergone one of the more fascinating evolutions in recent memory. The stories just don't add up. 

Jack Johnson infamously called Kessel a "dirtbag" in a leaked pre-draft interview back in 2005. The bad teammate tag followed him around in those early years from Boston to Toronto, with Kessel's relaxed attitude and aloof demeanor making him an easy target for reporters needing a scapegoat to pin those mediocre Leafs teams on. 

Let's just say that after a few heated exchanges and one fictional hot dog stand later, they found it. 

Even in Pittsburgh, where Kessel won back-to-back Stanley Cups and was robbed of a Conn Smythe in 2016, rumors of friction persisted still, with cameras even catching him and Evgeni Malkin engaging in a heated exchange on the Penguins' bench during a playoff game. 

Based on past evidence, you wouldn't be wrong to assume Kessel would be a pariah in league circles. But here is today, hailed as one of the NHL's ultimate teammates and personalities, with colleagues from across organizations and time periods singing his praises at the drop of a hat. 

How does that make sense? Well, frankly, it doesn't have to. 

The key to understanding Phil Kessel is, simply, to not. The man is an enigma; a blank canvas upon which fans and media alike can project the narrative of their choosing. And he's fine with that. At least, that's what this narrative paints him to be.

"He was great to me," explained Morgan Rielly, who played with Kessel in his early career from 2013-15. 

"I was 19 years old, and he always went out of his way to take me out to dinner. And I know at that time he and Bozie (Tyler Bozak) were living together, so me and Gards (Jake Gardiner) would go over there all the time and watch sports. He loves watching sports. So, we spent a lot of time going there" 

The bits and pieces of Kessel that have snuck to the surface paint him as a man of simple taste. 

Kessel loves his dog, Stella. Alone time is clearly a necessity, as evidenced by the single-seat movie theatre shown in Kessel's Pittsburgh home when he put the house on the market. 

In a fishbowl like Toronto, that famed Kessel-Bozak duo -- who, keep in mind, were millionaires in their mid-20s at the time -- were rumored not to be shutting down the city's club scene in their heyday, but rather engaging in heated Call of Duty marathons in their apartment. 

That youthful energy seems to have followed Kessel to the desert, too. 

"It's like he's a kid still -- a big kid," said Coyotes defenseman Jacob Chychrun. 

"It's just great having him here. I know a lot of guys look up to him" 

Kessel looks to have found peace in Arizona. He's started a family along with his wife, with the two welcoming their first child, a daughter, late on Tuesday night. 

So beloved is Kessel within the Coyotes' organizational walls that the team devised an intricate plan to keep his NHL-leading Iron Man streak alive while still ensuring he could attend the birth of his daughter, dressing Kessel in Detroit for one 30-second shift in his 956th consecutive game before shuttling him to the airport where a chartered plane courtesy of team owner Alex Meruelo was waiting to take him back to Arizona. 

Is that how you expect a team to treat its toxic, coach's nightmare? Not likely. And by all accounts, Kessel is the polar opposite. Everyone on that bench had a smile as he left the ice, including his coach.

"He's the guy I probably talk to the most," explained Tourigny of his veteran sniper. 

"I talk to Phil about whatever. Not even about the game. We chirp, we talk hockey, we talk about a former team, or golf, or football. He's a fun guy to be around. He's really entertaining"

Tourigny even admits to having his own misguided preconceptions of Kessel before taking the Coyotes job, those of which were immediately proven false during the pair's first meeting. 

"People have an image of him that is totally wrong," Tourigny continued. 

"I did not know Phil. When I arrived in Arizona, I was told 'Phil is a great guy', and I was like 'Oh yeah, sure'. Then I had dinner with him, and it's true. He's a really good person." 

"I asked him at some point about his image and he just looked at me and said, 'I don't care. I know who I am. The people that know me, that's what's important for me.'" 

The people who know Phil Kessel are the ones keeping his mystique alive. It's not an easy job, however, with reporters clawing for every detail they can find. But the Legend of Phil persists nonetheless. 

And Kessel, true to form, probably couldn't care either way. 

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