TORONTO – As if the two Stanley Cup rings and the contract-year incentive weren’t enough, the ironman will return to Toronto Thursday bolstered by a weapon he’s never brought to any of his previous 1,178 NHL games: Dad strength.
Thanks to Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo arranging a charter flight Tuesday night in Detroit, Phil Kessel hopped on the ice for a single shift, kept his ironman streak rolling (956 games and counting), then jetted back to Phoenix to witness the birth of his firstborn.
“Craziest experience of my life,” Kessel texted to his teammates, along with photos of his and longtime girlfriend Sandra Pereira’s brand-new baby girl, Kapri Mary Kessel.
“She’s so cute,” Jakob Chychrun confirmed. “I’m sure it’s going to change him for the better and excited to see him with a baby in his arms.”
More incredible: Coach André Tourigny revealed that Kessel wanted to hang around and play the whole game for the team. Smartly, the coach encouraged him to hop aboard Air Force Eighty-One and welcome his child: "It's way more important than any hockey game."
“Pretty incredible,” says Arizona native Auston Matthews. “He loves playing. He’s getting right back on the road and right back at it. So, I’m not too surprised. It’s quite a manoeuvre that he pulled. Hats off to him.”
Kessel is travelling back across the continent Thursday and will arrive just in time for puck drop against his old team, the Maple Leafs.
“You will see a smile from everybody in our room. We're all happy for him, happy for his family. Everybody's healthy. So that's fantastic,” said Tourigny, who is happy to limit Kessel’s minutes for such an unusual situation. “He will be tired. He has to be. Emotionally, physically, the travel. It’s one game.
“We'll take what he has.... It’s a special situation, and I’m all for it.”
Survey folks around the game, and they’re all for Kessel’s ascent up the ironman ranks.
Doug Jarvis held the title for 35 years with an incredible 964 consecutive games played. Keith Yandle surpassed Jarvis earlier this season and must hear Kessel’s skate-steps coming.
Kessel is nipping at Yandle’s heels, keeping pace just 22 games behind. With any luck, Kessel, too, will leap Jarvis this month.
If you were to factor in playoffs, which the record books do not, the gap tightens. Kessel has played an additional 81 games during his streak.
Yandle has 58 and was healthy-scratched during the Florida Panthers–Tampa Bay Lightning series in May.
Trade bait Kessel, 34, is 13 months younger than Yandle, and his production has bounced back since his rough first season in Arizona (2019-20).
Both Kessel and Yandle, now skating third-pair minutes for a struggling Flyers squad, need contracts for the 2022-23 season. The streak matters.
“You cheer for those guys,” says Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. “Phil being able to play as many games as he has, you start to appreciate that more and you start to admire it more. ... That spirit that he has. He really loves the game.”
Rielly fondly recalls Kessel and then-roommate Tyler Bozak taking him and Jake Gardiner out for dinners and talking sports when he was just a Leafs rookie.
“You never really know what's gonna come out of his mouth. Usually, it’s pretty funny,” said Matthews, who golfs with Kessel in the off-season. “I don’t think the stories you hear do him justice.”
Even with a trade threatening to move him to a contender, Papa Kessel is the same guy — all chirps and chatter — with the young Coyotes.
“He’s a big kid with us,” Chychrun said. “He’s just himself. That’s what makes him unique and special. I don’t think he’s a guy that would change the way he acts for anybody.
“If he doesn’t know you, you would think this guy doesn’t talk. He’s shy. He’s nervous. But when he’s with us, he’s the most normal guy ever.”
Tourigny counts on his fingers all the people in his life that ask about the indestructible enigma that is Phil the Thrill.
“My friends, my family, my son, my daughter, everybody ...” the coach began. “People have an image of him that’s totally wrong, and I will put myself in that (category).”
When Tourigny arrived in the desert, he rolled his eyes at reports that Kessel was a nice guy who tries hard and loves the game. But once the two went out for dinner, it didn’t take long for Tourigny to join Team Phil. Now, he’s the player the coach talks with most.
Tourigny remembered asking Kessel about how he’s perceived: “Your image ...”
Kessel stopped him.
“I don’t care. I know who I am,” Kessel replied. “People who know me, what they think of me, that's what's important for me.”
Tourigny knows Kessel now.
“And he's a really good human being,” Tourigny said. “You won't find anybody around our team who will say anything bad about Phil. He is probably the most popular guy in the room.”
And he has the most air miles.