Blake Wheeler has known Phil Kessel since 2005, when they were both freshmen at the University of Minnesota, and he still laughs at the memory of Kessel running through the streets of Minneapolis dressed as Captain America during their rookie season.
Wheeler and Kessel were teammates at the national-team level a year later when Kessel led all scorers at the World Junior Championship. They played together for a season early in their NHL careers with the Boston Bruins, and both were selected to play for Team USA at the 2014 Olympics.
Basically, Wheeler knows Kessel better than most, and he can think of a lot of reasons to explain why No. 8 is set to make history as the NHL’s all-time iron man, owner of the longest streak of consecutive games played.
But Kessel’s approach to nutrition, Wheeler admits, is probably not among those reasons.
“I remember walking into his room in the Olympic village [in 2014], and the amount of candy wrappers stacked up next to his bed — I think that was what he brought from home to Sochi,” the long-time Jets forward says, laughing. Wheeler notes most other guys brought over things like protein bars, but “for Phil it was, you know, his favourite candies.”
Sour Patch Kids were Kessel’s No. 1. “And I don’t know if this still holds true, but for the longest time, he never drank water,” Wheeler adds. “He would only drink blue Powerade. He didn’t like the taste of water.”
On Tuesday night, Philip Joseph Kessel Jr., who loves candy and apparently dislikes water, earned a distinction of historic proportions when he took the ice in San Jose along with his Vegas Golden Knights. The game was, incredibly, Kessel’s 990th straight, eclipsing the record of 989 held by Flyers defenceman Keith Yandle, whose run ended last season.
“There hasn’t been anybody to do this before, which just speaks volumes to how difficult this is,” says Morgan Rielly, who played alongside Kessel for two seasons in Toronto. “And you know, this isn’t by accident. It takes a lot of hard work to get there.”
Stressing that point of hard work is something those close to Kessel feel the need to do, because they know well the narrative that has followed the 35-year-old from Wisconsin: that perhaps he doesn’t work quite as hard as others do. But the iron man feat is yet more evidence to support a very different side to No. 8 than fans have gotten to know over his 17-year career in the NHL.
“A lot of jokes get made about his body or the things he does off the ice, those types of things, but I think it’s a front, a good story,” Wheeler says. “You ask anyone who’s trained with him or seen him in the gym, he’s typically one of the strongest guys.”
Adds Rielly: “He’d come into training camp and he was the strongest guy — by far.”
“He’s incredibly athletic,” Wheeler continues. “He’s the type of guy that, he’s good at everything he does. I just think he likes to put out this persona that he kind of doesn’t care, and just goes out there and whatever. But he cares a lot and I think he invests a lot more into himself than he would let people know.”
Rielly was a 19-year-old rookie when he first started playing with Kessel in Toronto during the 2013-14 season, and he thinks a lot of what people hear about Kessel’s off-ice habits started as a joke that picked up steam and morphed into “truth” because Kessel allowed it to. “He would make fun of himself all the time, and he liked when guys would make fun of him,” Rielly says.
One popular narrative around Kessel during his Toronto days was that he ate a hot dog daily. “Then you see the picture of him with the Stanley Cup with a bunch of hot dogs in it [after he won it for the second time, in 2017]. He has a great sense of humour and he can be quite self-deprecating,” Rielly says.
At six feet tall and a little more than 200 pounds, Kessel isn’t small by any measure, but he’s not made of, well, iron, like some players in the league appear to be.
“Part of what made him hilarious is he’s very unassuming,” Rielly says. “He’s able to fly up and down the ice, he’s incredibly strong in the gym, he can hit the golf ball a mile, he can hit a three in basketball, he’s a good soccer player — that’s just his ability, he’s an incredible athlete. But if you look at him, his stature, you wouldn’t think it.”
Rielly believes there was “some misunderstanding” of Kessel while the iron man played in Toronto for six seasons, between 2009 and 2015, and it doesn’t just surround work ethic. One season that ended particularly badly for the Leafs, Rielly had to stay in the city in the off-season to rehab a knee, and Kessel was also in Toronto. “He was staying in Toronto because he loved Toronto, and he went out of his way to make sure I had something to do every night,” Rielly says, whether that was getting together to watch sports, or going to, as Rielly puts it, a “fancy restaurant” with Kessel’s “cool friends.”
“That was a really nice thing he did for me when I was about 20 years old and he was probably in a position where the media was being hard on him, but he still made sure I had something to do when everybody else on the team had left,” Rielly says. “He was one of the most popular guys on the team. Everybody loved him. He’s just a very easy guy to like.”
That popularity could play into the streak a little bit, too. While the Flyers made Yandle a healthy scratch last season to end his streak at 989 games, Kessel got full support from the Coyotes to keep his streak alive and still get him home in time for the birth of his first child this past March. He played a single shift in Detroit on March 8 and even recorded a shot before skating off the ice, fist-bumping his teammates and hopping on a chartered flight arranged by the team’s ownership so he could be there with his long-time girlfriend, Sandra, as they welcomed their daughter, Kapri, into the world. The Coyotes say the plan was the joint idea of Kessel, coach André Tourigny and GM Bill Armstrong.
“That was pretty crazy,” says Clayton Keller, Kessel’s teammate for the last three seasons in Arizona. “It was nice of our team to kind of allow him to keep that streak going and to get back home for the night, and then he came out for the next game. It was pretty cool.”
The story shows this streak seems to matter to Kessel, but that doesn’t explain how he’s managed to stay injury-free and available to play since November of 2009, the last time he missed a game. “I’ve been in the league for five years now and I’ve missed so much time due to little injuries,” says Zach Aston-Reese, who played with Kessel for parts of two seasons in Pittsburgh. “That’s definitely an asset, that’s a skill to be able to stay healthy like that. It’s pretty crazy.”
“I think he’s just incredibly gifted with a) his genetics, his body, and the way he’s been able to hold up over the years, but b), the way he sees the game,” Wheeler adds. “His hockey sense has given him the ability to keep himself out of situations where he would get in trouble. I think he’s an incredibly smart hockey player and he knows where to be on the ice, and the situations to avoid.”
“He’s just always been very durable,” Rielly says. “He’s a strong, athletic guy who’s put in a lot of time over the course of his life to tee himself up to have long-term success. When he was in the gym with us and on the ice, he was extremely durable. I don’t think he gets enough credit — I don’t think people know he’s just extremely gifted when it comes to his athletic ability. That’s played a factor, I’m sure.”
Keller considers how Kessel managed this streak, and he witnessed firsthand the speedy winger play through bumps and bruises. He cites Kessel’s “love for the game” as another possible explanation for this milestone.
Wheeler figures it plays a big role, too. “His love for the game is undeniable. I don’t think he would ever tell anyone that, but I think that Phil is one of those guys that’ll play as long as there’s a spot for him,” Wheeler says. “He genuinely loves hockey.”
That he may genuinely dislike the taste of water, however, is something Rielly can’t wrap his head around. The defenceman thinks it’s just part of the Kessel narrative that his former teammate finds funny.
“There’s no way that can be real,” Rielly says, grinning and shaking his head. “But he used to drink Coke between periods and stuff, and he would say it’s because he didn’t want to drink water, which like, I just don’t understand.
“But it’s just part of what makes him who he is. I thought it was hilarious.” Rielly considers playing 990 straight NHL games without drinking water and he decides there’s another element to Kessel’s impressive streak: “Maybe it is a little bit genetic, too.”