Kessel talks ironman streak, love of game with NHL.com
The Vegas Golden Knights forward, sitting in his stall at City National Arena after practice Friday, has just been asked if he remembers the last time he missed an NHL game. Given the fact that he is on the verge of becoming the all-time ironman in the NHL, you’d expect him to know. Most players would.
But Kessel is not most players.
“No idea,” the 35-year-old forward said. “You’ll have to look that up.”
How could he not know?
“I have no doubt he doesn’t know,” said Wade Arnott, Kessel’s longtime agent. “The majority of guys, if they said something like that, you would be skeptical, cynical and might not believe him. But with Phil, I really do believe he doesn’t know.
“Phil’s not someone who looks back at numbers, stats, things like that. He doesn’t look back. He lives in the moment. He lives for the moment.”
Maybe. But Kessel and the moment are on a collision course, starting with the Golden Knights’ next game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at T-Mobile Arena on Monday. (10 p.m. ET: ATTSN-RN, TSN-4, ESPN+, SN NOW).
When Kessel, health permitting, is on the ice against the Maple Leafs, he’ll be playing his 989th consecutive game, tying retired defenseman Keith Yandle for the longest streak in NHL history. One night later, he’ll have the chance to set the record against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center in San Jose.
The numbers are eye-popping.
For the record (and for Kessel’s information), he has not missed a game since Oct. 31, 2009, when the Maple Leafs lost to the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in a shootout at Bell Centre, not playing because of shoulder injury that sidelined him for the first month of the season.
Three days later, Nov. 3, a streak was born, although no one could have predicted that at the time, let alone Kessel himself. In fact, he was flattened in that game by defenseman Mattias Ohlund during a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Toronto. He was traded to the Maple Leafs by the Boston Bruins on Sept. 18, 2009.
After sitting on his keister for several seconds, he brushed the snow off himself and got up. And he’s been doing the same ever since, putting himself into position to tie Yandle’s mark 4,738 days after the streak started.
“I’ve always been the guy that would rather play than sit out,” Kessel explained during a 10-minute chat with NHL.com. “I try to play no matter what.
“It’s basically kind of how it ends, right?”
Except, who knows when the streak will end? Indeed, if he keeps going, he’ll play consecutive game No. 1,000 against the Arizona Coyotes in Las Vegas on Nov. 17.
Not even the birth of his first child could stop the streak. On March 8, Kessel, then with the Coyotes, played one shift against the Detroit Red Wings, then took a private jet arranged by Arizona owner Alex Meruelo back to Phoenix to be there for the baby’s arrival. Even then, Coyotes coach Andre Tourigny said Kessel wanted to play the whole game.
There have been no shortage of bumps and bruises along the way. Alex Goligoski, his former teammate with the Coyotes and, before that, the University of Minnesota, recalls Kessel having a soft tissue injury but refusing to miss games while skipping practices to heal. Rick Tocchet, an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins during Kessel’s stint there, said the forward has been helped by not putting himself into positions where he can be wallpapered into the boards or frequently cross checked in front of the net.
“Ya, there’s some luck involved,” Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said. “And sometimes you’re fortunate with how you don’t put yourself in harm’s way when you know some guys get hurt being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They turn and bump into somebody. Phil’s been pretty good at avoiding those.
“At the same time, what he’s on the cusp of doing, full credit to him.”
Kessel can’t remember all the ailments he’s had to overcome to keep the streak alive. Nor does he want to.
“There were plenty of them,” he said. “But I always just said, ‘Screw it. I’ll go out there and play because I like to play.’ I’d rather be playing than sitting in the stands.”
Kessel has done just that, with 957 points (399 goals, 558 assists) in 1,210 games for the Bruins, Maple Leafs, Penguins, Coyotes and Golden Knights. The highlight of his career: helping the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017.
“I’ve had so many great teammates, won a couple of Cups, I’ve done OK, don’t you think?” he said with a chuckle.
Agreed. At the same time, after logging so many minutes in his career, how long does he plan to keep playing?
“‘Til someone tells me I can’t play no more,” he laughed.
Kessel’s flirtation with NHL history almost ended three years before his streak started.
Six months after the Bruins selected him No. 5 in the 2006 NHL Draft, his life changed when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer Dec. 11. He had surgery to remove the cancer and was back on the ice with Boston against the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 9, missing 11 games.
“Can you imagine, you’re only 19 years old, you’re still a teenager, you’re finally living your dream of playing in the NHL and then your entire life is rocked like that?” Arnott said. “I remember being in Boston, being in the hospital, being at his bedside.
“Thankfully he came out of it OK. But it changed him. How could it not?”
Indeed, Kessel’s view of the world would be altered forever by the experience.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “It opens your eyes quick. You learn and you grow up pretty quick. It changed who I am. It changes your perspective of life a little, in that sense.
“Obviously, you never know what can happen in life. Life’s short. What was important to me was playing. The other stuff around the game, I could care less. I enjoyed playing then and I enjoy playing now. Going through what I did, it just made the other stuff irrelevant.”
The “other stuff” Kessel is referring to is being in the public eye. He’s never liked the spotlight and has often come across as being moody, at times crusty, when he’s been in it. He’s never been comfortable in that situation and doesn’t make any apologies for feeling that way, even when he’s been criticized for it by the media over the years.
Kessel said his bout with cancer made him understand what is important. Fame, notoriety, those types of things, he said, are not.
“I’ve never really cared what anyone says, other than my friends, family and teammates,” Kessel said. “A lot of people don’t know me personally. And a lot of the people that speak about me don’t necessarily know the game of hockey sometimes, so you just look at it that way.
“I’ve just never really cared too much what they say.”
Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said Kessel’s public image is much different from the person he is behind the dressing room doors. Kessel played for Arizona from 2019-22 before signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Golden Knights on Aug. 24.
“Phil was great,” Armstrong said. “He was a big part of our organization. He’s just a very interesting person. I think he’s kind of misunderstood a lot of times.”
In what way?
“I think sometimes when he goes through certain periods where he might not play well, I think there are just conversations that you just have to have with Phil and he responds,” Armstrong said.
“He gets frustrated. People take it like he doesn’t care, and I don’t think that’s it at all. I think he cares almost too much. I think he almost takes it on too much and he shuts down. And if you don’t read them the right way, you can look at it like laziness or other things. But what you ask of Phil, is what Phil does. Phil sat down with me. I said, ‘Listen to this where I think you get points.’ He went out and achieved that.
“I think Phil has a lot of good things. He’s a specimen, believe it or not, with how he skates at his age and at his skill level, so we’re excited for him that he got a chance to move on to Vegas.”
So far, Kessel has become one of the most popular players on the Golden Knights.
“Anyone that knows Phil off the ice, he’s just wonderful for the locker room,” Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “Everyone wants to be around him, so he’s been a welcomed addition for us.”
Cassidy has noticed it too.
“Guys love Phil here,” he said. “He’s got a different sense of humor. He lightens up the room. I’ve enjoyed my time with him. He loves to talk hockey. And I think he’s been good for Vegas.
“I’ve talked to different people about how he’s helped different locker rooms.”
Thus far, in his short stint with Vegas, Kessel has shown he can take a joke as much as giving one.
Here’s an example.
Kessel had never been known for his defensive skills. He has an NHL career plus-minus rating of minus-148, hardly the type of numbers that get you consideration for the Selke Trophy awarded to the top defensive forward in the NHL.
No matter. When he made a couple of good back-checking plays early on in his stint with the Golden Knights, his teammates quickly came up with a new nickname.
From that point onward, he’s been known as “Selke” inside the Vegas dressing room.
At first blush, Kessel will be the first to tell you he isn’t the poster child for the cover of a bodybuilding magazine.
He’s 5-foot-11, 208 pounds. Tocchet joked about Kessel at times in his career having a bit of a pot belly. Social media has at times gone viral for his perceived penchant for hot dogs.
Hardly the type of chiseled physical stature you’d think would belong to a player who’s about to become the all-time ironman in the NHL.
“I’m a hockey player, you know, that’s basically what I am,” Kessel said. “Just a hockey player, you know? “They come in all shapes and sizes.”
In his case, looks can be deceiving.
“Well, I think on that side of things, look at his numbers and how good a skater he is,” Pietrangelo said. “So does that other stuff really matter? I don’t think so.
“Just look at him. He’s much more powerful than I am. There’s a reason he’s such an elite skater, right?
Coyotes defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere thinks he knows why.
“The knock on Phil is that he doesn’t work out, blah, blah, blah,” Gostisbehere said. “But when he does go in the gym, I swear to God, he has the strongest legs of anyone I’ve ever seen.
“I mean, those pictures of the hot dogs, that aura around him, it’s what the media and everyone does. They create that bubble around him. But every player that’s ever played with him knows the real Phil and that he does work hard.”
As Kessel approaches the record, he has been superstitious about it. He’d rather not discuss it or hear it from people around him in case it jinxes his flirtation with history.
But it doesn’t take away what he’s on the cusp of accomplishing.
“When you think about it, it’s really incredible,” said linemate Jack Eichel, who as a boy in New England watched Kessel play for the Bruins. “You rarely see a guy play the full 82 games for the whole season. And for him to do it for so many seasons in a row, it’s pretty impressive.”
Not that you’ll ever hear Kessel brag about it.
“I just want to be known as a good teammate,” he said. “And I still have fun playing the game.
“As long as that’s the case, I plan to keep doing it.”