Nice Guy. Tries Hard. Loves the Game. That’s the bio of Pittsburgh Penguins right winger and resident sniper, Phil Kessel. Fresh off an election season where the popular parody account @EvegeniMalkinEgo printed “Phil Kessel for President” t-shirts through Sin Bin Apparel, Kessel appeals to the popular vote in Pittsburgh more than ever. He and teammate Kris Letang even did some campaigning of their own, taking pictures of themselves donning the tees.
A testament that the puck eventually does eventually find your tape, Kessel—the same player whom the Toronto media mercilessly flogged until he was booted out of town—was finally paid his worth in gold with a Stanley Cup triumph over the summer. He delivered the goods as well, scoring 10 goals and dishing out 12 assists.
Even better, he found a city that adored him and a media that left him be long enough to find the goalie’s five-hole or snap a cross-ice pass far post to Sidney Crosby, who would deposit puck in net for another power play goal.
Pittsburgh can ride its stars roughshod if they sulk or dog it, but for an earnest guy like Phil Kessel, the fan base values honesty when they see it. With Phil, the body language holds no mysteries. At the end of a shift, he’ll place his gloves on the bench, hunched forward with head bowed, and either breathe heavily in disbelief at a missed scoring chance or exultation at another one of his shots snapping into an undressed corner of the net.
Hockey fans are like any other major fans. We don’t just obsess over the intricacies of the game—we savor the player personalities and cast of characters that we can root for, boo to no end, or find out that they’re humans too. The trade rumors, locker room murmurs, and constant press gossip delight us because it reminds us of our own experiences in sports. Blink twice, and all the controversies smell faintly of high school or pickup rivalries and moments of personal glory.
And one Philip J. Kessel stands as one of the most intricate paradoxes in hockey. He’s complex like any other professional hockey player and human, yet with him as much as anyone, there are quiet moments of clarity that escape the froth of ratings-driven journalism and national television coverage.
Kessel is an NHL autopsy on the media’s miscarriage of coverage. In Toronto, he was supposed to not only be the team’s top goal-scorer but also the face of the franchise, the leader and emotional tone-setter. The media and fans vaulted that narrative into every corner of Toronto hockey consciousness, and as result, if Phil struggled to bury shots or presented unsatisfactory body language, he was to blame for all of the Maple Leafs’ missteps. Consequently, Toronto cleared him out, trading him to the Pittsburgh Penguins in July of 2015.
To say Pittsburgh strutted away from the trade with all the loot would still be a vicious understatement, because Phil Kessel is a lesson in humanity of hockey. What the Toronto franchise, media, and fans failed to recognize is that your best goal scorer will not necessarily be the commanding, General Patton-like voice in the locker room. Fans will claim that the millions of dollars Kessel earned justified their demands that he play Moses and part the Red Sea of Maple Leafs perpetual mediocrity, but they missed the brilliance of Kessel as a player—his ability to swing the game with one shot.
In Pittsburgh, the soft-spoken Kessel speaks in louder tones with his speed and wrist shot rather than a round of post-game media inquisitors and indictments. Therein lies the artistry of Phil: He hits the twine as consistently as anyone in his generation and that’s what he’s paid to do. Pittsburgh coaches, media, and fans don’t expect him to articulate with the polish of a White House Press secretary or use his emotions to stir the pot. We have Sidney Crosby field the media inquiries with a veteran captain’s seasoned blandness and Evgeni Malkin to get the crowd going with his demonstrative celebrations.
In a way, Kessel displays his own type of leadership in terms of his play. Nothing puts a grin to the players’ faces more than a quintessential Phil Kessel goal: on the rush, down the right wing, and a flourishing snapshot that burrows into some crevice of the net. No one savors this more than the fans. Specialists may be a dying breed in the modern NHL, but there will always be room in the hearts of fans for guys who can tickle the twine with stinging wrist shot.
He also appeals to fans in the sense that he does not lacquer over who he is as a human. When speaking with the media, he reveals his discomfort with the charade, just as most of us would sway uncomfortably and avert our gazes from classmates during a high school speech. When he scores, the delight leaps out of his post-goal expressions. When he misses a scoring chance, he throws his head up in self-flagellation, acknowledging that that one is on him.
In essence, Kessel is authentic. Fans think, “He’s just like me if I was playing this game.” Like most high school and college-age male Penguins fans, he cherishes the game, religiously takes part in fantasy football, plays video games, and loves his dog. For a second, we think he might be out of place. He doesn’t have rippling muscles like Patric Hornqvist and looks more fitting of a job in insurance or tech support.
There’s just a single, simple difference: Phil Kessel is really good at hockey. Just when we think we’re like him, we remember that we don’t have his frozen-rope shot or breakaway speed. And that’s okay, because he needed those traits to be at the top of his profession, and that is why we go to watch him every night on tv.
The most intriguing characters in a novel are the ones readers simply appreciate for who they are, not what they might be. The same should hold true for Pittsburgh fans. While we have Kessel, let’s drink in both his head-turning play and often goofy personality in moments where the spotlight and hefty contract aren’t demanding him to be the hockey Messiah. He may look like the guy next door, but when he’s not in the game anymore, some of us will remember what a talent he was for our hometown team, scolding ourselves for not appreciating the skill and head-turning wrist shot while we had it.
Kevin Cochrane is a writer, college student, and founder of Town Crier. Like what you read? Follow him on Twitter at RunFree_KC, friend him on Facebook under “Kevin Cochrane,” or click the follow button at the bottom of the page to get Town Crier’s latest updates. Want to read more? Visit his blog restandrefuge.wordpress.com which offers perspectives from a Christian trying to navigate the culture around him. You can contact him with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.