By Kristina Rutherford in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia
By Kristina Rutherford in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia
Phil Kessel is wired differently than other NHL superstars. And the Pittsburgh Penguins are totally cool with that.

We like to Party!” blares over the arena speakers as Phil Kessel floats into the Penguins’ zone during a pre-game warmup drill. He drops a pass to Carl Hagelin, skates toward the net, then curls up the boards and stops just short of the centre line. Kessel pauses there for a few beats and watches the Philadelphia Flyers, his opposition tonight. Then, with three minutes left on the clock, he apparently decides he’s nice and warm. Kessel is the first player to leave the ice.

The two other Penguins who ranked among the top-10 in league scoring last season have slightly different pre-game habits. As time ticks down, Sidney Crosby fires a couple final shots on an empty net. The captain would be the last player out here, but instead that distinction is reserved for his teammate, Evgeni Malkin. A few lonely seconds after Crosby’s departure, Malkin is joined on the ice by Pittsburgh’s head trainer, Chris Stewart. Malkin shoots a puck off Stewart’s foot, like he does before every game, and then he heads to the dressing room.

There are things you come to expect from athletes who are the best of the best, like pre-game routines born for bizarre reasons only their elite authors can truly comprehend. And so, when Jamie Oleksiak joined these Pittsburgh Penguins last December, he was a little surprised at the behaviour of one of the team’s stars. Kessel, Oleksiak discovered, is a different bird. “What he does is unique to hockey players, and it definitely has its advantages,” the towering defenceman says. He points out Kessel isn’t one for superstitions or routines like most, but rather, “he just listens to his body,” which must explain why No. 81 is an iron man who hasn’t missed a single game in eight seasons. Says a grinning Oleksiak: “Rest is a weapon, right?”

Well, the benefits of a leisurely approach sure fit with Kessel’s reputation. Cue the memes of the Wisconsin-born winger slamming hot dogs while he sleeps and scores goals (fiction), or slumped over on the bench and breathing heavily after a shift while a teammate playfully nudges him back to life (reality). Kessel has become a fan favourite because of his everyman ways coupled with otherworldly hockey ability. The two-time Stanley Cup champion turns 31 the day before the season starts, and he’s coming off a career-high 92-point campaign, 10 better than the previous best he hit in 2011–12 as a Toronto Maple Leaf. You can point to Kessel’s linemates on the most productive power-play unit in hockey to find the root cause for that extra production, but Crosby and Malkin are also the chief reasons why Kessel’s as comfortable in black-and-yellow as he’s ever been in his pro career. No longer the lone star a Toronto franchise depends on, Kessel is a star among stars. And does the constellation ever suit him.

Opponents who lose track of Kessel when facing the Pens' top-ranked power-play unit usually end up paying the price.

Sidney Crosby is sitting in his stall wearing a black Penguins ball cap, which is where and how you’ll find him after every game, speaking softly and showing little emotion while reporters crowd around. Kessel, on the other hand, stands at the dressing room door, though not on the side of it he’d like. His black hockey bag is slung over his shoulder and he’s caught in a traffic jam caused by media still filing in after his team beat up on the Flyers 8-5 in Game 6 to cement their first-round series win, back in April. Kessel just wants out. “Didn’t you owe me a favour?” Kessel calls out to a teammate on the other side of the door, but he gets no help in return. A couple seconds later he finds an opening in the crowd and he’s gone.

Earlier tonight, he scored his first goal of the 2018 post-season when he streaked down the right wing, got a nice cross-ice saucer pass from Malkin and wristed it past Flyers goalie Brian Elliott, who was caught so off-guard that he looked between his pads as the lamp lit to find out where that puck had gone. But regardless of that on-ice production, which would necessitate a post-game scrum in most dressing rooms, Kessel doesn’t have to stand and uncomfortably face the cameras, wearing his hat and giving a string of “you know”-filled answers. As his former University of Minnesota teammate and one of his best friends, Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler can confirm, “Phil is an introvert” — the spotlight isn’t his thing. Lucky for Kessel he’s not often forced into it in Pittsburgh. A request to interview him in the Penguins dressing room is met with a bit of a laugh from team staff, a promise to try to get him to come out and then the simple counteroffer: “We have a lot of scorers.” He’s off the hook.

As Crosby points out, having three marquee players who usually man different lines isn’t just good for creating offence and depth on the ice, it helps with off-ice tasks, too. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing, having those responsibilities and sharing,” Crosby told Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson. “That has been a big key for all of us.”

And if you ask the team’s general manager, Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh’s embarrassment of riches on the ice creates a comfortable environment for just about anyone who fits the elite category. “I would say for most players — not just for Phil — if you don’t have to be the guy day-in and day-out, it certainly makes it easier,” Rutherford says.

It’s not just easier, it’s the polar opposite of every other situation Kessel’s known. In Boston, he was the fifth-overall pick, the kid with heavy expectations on his shoulders. That burden only intensified with the Maple Leafs, who made him the centre of their hopes and dreams for six seasons before making him the centre of a six-player trade (plus draft picks) in July of 2015. “Consider the pressures that were put on him, especially through tough years in Toronto, where he was supposed to be the guy almost by himself to bring the team to the playoffs,” Rutherford says. “Here, we have other guys that take that leadership role and take that day-to-day pressure, so he can fit in as just one of the players. But he’s not just one of the players, he’s one of our best.”

And since Kessel’s just one of the best, not the best, he can easily disappear. Nobody scored more points on the power play last season than his 42, yet ask opposing players about that deadly Pittsburgh unit and you’ll often find Kessel in second thoughts, or no thoughts at all. “Obviously, they have two — Malkin and Crosby,” Wild defensive specialist Matt Read begins, when assessing the elite members of the Penguins power play. Then he pauses. “You know, Kessel had a good year as well,” he adds. Yes, just the best in the league with the man advantage.

Teammate Evgeni Malkin, himself a two-time Art Ross winner, calls Kessel's "the best shot in the whole league."

Kessel didn’t get to Pittsburgh and immediately light it up, though. His least-productive season for the Penguins was his first, back in 2015–16, when he had 59 points. Rutherford could tell it was taking time for Kessel to settle in with this new team, something the GM could relate to, having joined the Penguins after a two-decade stint with the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes. “He didn’t talk about it a lot, but I could sense there was an adjustment period,” Rutherford says. “You have those memories of the place you just came from, if you were there for a long time. And deep down, he didn’t want to leave Toronto. He wanted to be a guy that helped the team get better.”

Kessel couldn’t be that guy in Toronto, but in Pittsburgh, he can and he is. Just ask Malkin, his sometimes linemate: “We really like signing him two years ago because he’s [a] spark for our team,” says the guy who’s been awarded the Art Ross Trophy twice, and the Hart and Conn Smythe once apiece. “We understand he can score every shift, he’s so dangerous, you know? His shot’s, I think, the best shot in the whole league.”

Kessel hit the 30-plus goal mark for the sixth time in his career last season and nobody scored more than his 18 goals in Pittsburgh’s last two Cup runs, but it’s his playmaking that teammates call underrated. In Game 3 of their first-round win over the Flyers, Kessel patiently waited by the net and then, just when you thought he was going to shoot, fed a pass to Derick Brassard in the slot.

Brassard joined the Penguins just ahead of the trade deadline last season, but in his brief time with Kessel occasionally on his wing, the former Senator learned to expect the unexpected. “It’s pretty incredible what he can do with the puck,” Brassard says. “He’s got a really good wrister, so it keeps everyone on their heels a little bit — and the goalies.”

Another thing Brassard learned pretty quickly playing alongside Kessel is No. 81 chats a fair bit on the ice. Just watch him bark at a teammate who goes offside or misses a pass. He’ll talk with another between whistles, he’ll study a play on the iPad between shifts and then discuss it. He’ll get so fired up talking to a coach on the bench that you’ll see teammates laughing at him. “It’s all constructive,” Rutherford explains. “Phil is a real hockey guy. He really follows the game, knows it inside and out.”

So while he might be one of the first guys to forgo an optional practice, nobody in the Penguins organization is doubting Kessel’s desire to win. It’s the reason Rutherford says his star winger has played through injuries others wouldn’t, which explains the 692 straight regular-season game streak, the third-longest among active players, and ninth-longest all time. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan will admit “it hasn’t always been apple pie and ice cream” in his discussions with Kessel. This off-season, there were rumours of unrest between Kessel and the coaching staff, and talk of a potential trade, though no move was made. “But what I’ve really grown to respect about Phil is his honesty and his care for this team and helping this team win,” Sullivan says.

You’ll especially see it in big moments. Kessel already ranks 10th all-time in Pittsburgh’s post-season production, and in his first season here, he led the team with 22 playoff points. “You only have to look to the last two Stanley Cup runs to know that Phil Kessel is at his best when the stakes are high,” Sullivan says. “And that’s one of the reasons why he’s on this team.”

Kessel's penchant for passing on optional practices may play into the image of him as a lazy player, but there's no arguing with the results when he steps on the ice.

It was a practice day ahead of the playoffs, and Kessel was taking his sweet time pulling on his jersey. A couple teammates caught wind of this, and they were all over him. Practice isn’t exactly Kessel’s favourite pastime, after all.

“Are you coming out today?” one asked.

“We gotta work on the power play,” another said.

“He’s just yapping back,” Crosby recalls, grinning. “It’s non-stop. It’s always something. He’s great.”

That comic relief is a key part of this Penguins dressing room, too. It has a different feel from most in the NHL, nearly clinical, maybe because by now winning is the expectation. On the road, they’ll bring their logo carpet and plunk it in the middle of the room, they’ll hang Penguins flags up on walls and posts. They’ll tape up posters that say things like “Be hard to play against!” and “The journey starts here.” They’ll win 5-0 and you can’t tell by looking at goalie Matt Murray whether he just got that shutout or let in five stinkers. Crosby barely smiles talking about a four-point night.

But you’ll see both Murray and Crosby laugh and smile when Kessel’s name comes up. As Brassard has noticed in about 20 games with the Penguins, “the guys really like him around the dressing room.”

Kessel brings welcome comic relief to the businesslike Pens dressing room, and his numbers have rebounded in Pittsburgh, including a career-high 92 points last season.

While fans get glimmers of that personality from time to time, all the winning in Pittsburgh means the outside world has gotten to know Kessel more in three years as a Penguin than they did in six as a Maple Leaf and another three as a Bruin. It’s partly because winning makes him more visible, maybe even happier and more likely to make fun of himself or allow himself to be the butt of a joke. On the winger’s first visit to the White House, President Barack Obama said welcome to all, and then in the next breath he quipped, “We are here to celebrate an extraordinary achievement,” — Presidential Pause — “Phil Kessel is a Stanley Cup champion.”

Then last summer, Kessel, who got some heat for visiting a roadside hot dog stand on the regular in Toronto, posted a picture on Instagram of the Cup full of hot dogs with a caption that said they taste better out of Lord Stanley’s mug. Upper Deck even made him a hot dog hockey card. “I think he’s got this following around him now, this whole aura,” Oleksiak says. “I think a lot of his traits got maybe snowballed and took on a life of their own, they were blown out of proportion a little, you know?”

In Pittsburgh, Kessel’s not pretending to be someone else, not asked to fulfill superstar demands off the ice. He’ll miss practice to rest, he’ll be the first off the ice in warmup, he’ll avoid interviews when he can, because other stars are happy to talk. “He doesn’t make any bones about how he lives and what he likes doing,” Rutherford says. “Phil’s just an everyday guy. That’s what he wants to be, and that’s what he is.”

Murray doesn’t want to speak for his teammate, but, the goalie says, “I think he likes it here a lot.”

So, what does Kessel think?

“It’s been great, you know, everyone treats me well here,” he says. “We’ve had two good runs, you know, the guys are great here and it’s been a good three years.”

Well said. A third good run, of course, would make it even better.

With files from Christine Simpson.

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok.
Getty (4); Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo (2); Elsa/Getty Images; Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images.