ANAHEIM, Calif. — It is a game day at Honda Center and Ryan Kesler couldn’t look any more relaxed.
When he emerges from the Anaheim Ducks dressing room in shorts, flip-flops and a ballcap, it’s not entirely clear if he’s on his way to the beach or heading home for a pre-game nap.
That’s not to suggest Kesler is doing anything wrong. He is merely observing the loose dress code enjoyed by those lucky enough to play hockey for a living in Orange County.
The players here will tell you that the perks extend well beyond sunshine and the chance to wear shorts in November, too, which is why it’s so telling that Kesler immediately points to lifestyle when asked for the biggest difference between being a member of the Ducks and Vancouver Canucks.
“I think just being able to enjoy your time off the ice,” he told me this week. “You can be with your family and kind of just live your life like a normal person and not have that famous part of it.”
This is the closest Kesler will come to acknowledging there was a little more to his requested trade out of Vancouver than simply wanting a better shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
During a candid sitdown with Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register in September, he sounded like someone who had tired of playing in a crazed hockey market. In particular, Kesler didn’t like the way he was portrayed by some members of the media.
“I don’t buy that I’m not a good teammate,” he said. “You can ask any of my teammates. I know when I was traded, if I was such a bad teammate, 95 per cent of the guys wouldn’t have texted me (afterward).
“That’s the problem with Vancouver. The media makes up a lot of stories that aren’t true. To be honest, I was really sick of certain media guys throwing people under the bus.
“No matter how much my old teammates say it doesn’t bother them, it affects them. It does in that city.”
It is certainly not an issue here.
The Ducks are currently a first-place team and won’t be subjected to anywhere near the same level of scrutiny even if that changes. Kesler should largely be free to go quietly about his business in this environment — at least once he gets Sunday’s game against the Canucks and a Nov. 20 visit to Vancouver out of the way.
What is most striking about seeing him in Anaheim is how normal it all appears. Despite playing more than 700 games for the Canucks and spending 11 years in the organization, the transition has been smooth.
“He seems comfortable,” said coach Bruce Boudreau.
The Ducks are thrilled with their new second-line centre. Kesler has long been the apple of GM Bob Murray’s eye and Anaheim very nearly pried him away from Vancouver at the trade deadline last season.
Those close to the situation suggest Murray was locked in a bidding war with Pittsburgh in March and actually offered more at that point than the eventual price he paid for Kesler at the draft: Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and the 24th pick (Jared McCann).
Kesler waived a no-trade clause to make it happen and feels like he’s got a great chance to win a championship. However, he says it’s too soon to gauge how this team compares to some of the great Vancouver ones he played for in the past.
“We’re just going to take it in stride and have fun with it,” said Kesler. “You need a lot to go right to win. It’s a long season and right now we’re playing well. Hopefully we can continue that.”
He’s found some pleasant surprises inside the Anaheim dressing room.
“I didn’t know about their young guys,” he said. “Obviously when you hear about the Ducks you think (Ryan) Getzlaf and (Corey) Perry and (Francois) Beauchemin. But I didn’t know too much about their young guys and they’ve really impressed me so far.
“We’re a deep young team.”
Kesler has done his part as well, racking up nine points in 14 games.
His most valuable asset for the team is strong defensive play — not to mention having another big centre to employ against tough Western Conference opponents. Boudreau is already enjoying that luxury and only expects Kesler to get better with time.
“I’m sure there are things still in his game that he reverts back to and goes ‘Oh geez we don’t do that here,”‘ said Boudreau. “You know, or ‘I used to do that there and we’ve changed.’
“But for the most part, even though the offensive numbers aren’t there, he’s been very good. And one of the main reasons is I can put him and Getzlaf out on different lines and we’ve been very good defensively because our matchups have been (favourable).”
Life is good here.
It is during the few moments of downtime the season offers where Kesler most appreciates his new situation. He and his wife, Andrea, are able to go out for dinner and blend into the surroundings.
They’ve now spent a couple months in California and he’s hardly been recognized.
“A couple people here and there, but nothing like Vancouver,” said Kesler.