Phil Kessel is whatever you want him to be

Phil Kessel doesn't enjoy being in the spotlight, but he often finds himself right in the middle of it. And after all he's had to deal with in his young career, we shouldn't be surprised at how he deals with all the attention.
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In the past two NHL campaigns, the following players finished among the NHL’s top-10 scorers both times: The first is Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos, winner of a couple Rocket Richard trophies and a two-time all-star already in his five-year career.

The other, is Toronto’s Phil Kessel.

But how many people would put Stamkos and Kessel in the same category right now? More bluntly, how many people would say anyone that puts Stamkos and Kessel in the same category must be from Toronto and therefore delusional?

I’m sure if you asked Kessel, he would demure; he’s not the type of guy that bigs himself up. In fact, when I interviewed him over the summer about his offensive production, he wasn’t exactly boastful.

“Hopefully I can just keep it going at the same pace, right?” he said. “I’m not going to change anything, so hopefully I can do it again.”

Kessel doesn’t seek out the spotlight, but man, does he ever end up in it time and again. This week, it’s because of his starring role in a pre-season brawl with Buffalo that saw the Sabres’ John Scott violate “The Code” by trying to throttle the Maple Leafs sniper; new Toronto teammate David Clarkson suspended 10 games for leaving the bench; and Kessel himself banned from the remainder of the exhibition schedule. Buffalo coach Ron Rolston was also fined for his decision to have Scott on the ice after Corey Tropp lost a fight to Jamie Devane and Toronto bench boss Randy Carlyle was questioned by many for putting Kessel’s line out against the Sabres goon when the Leafs had last change and scrappier players on the bench.

As always, Kessel is taking the brunt of the abuse. Footage of his two-handed hacks at Scott have already been turned into gifs of the Toronto winger wielding a lightsaber, while a captioned photo of one of the dreadful Team USA Olympic portraits features Kessel’s mug and the Chuck Norris-esque tagline, “John Scott tried to fight me…once.”

I’m not gonna lie, that last one is funny to me. But John Scott doesn’t have any memes to his name yet and he’s the one that caused the whole calamity. If anything, this once again proves that Phil Kessel is whatever you want him to be – and it’s usually not positive.

I believe this is unfair. Put aside the fact he is legitimately a hero – he faced surgery for testicular cancer as a 19-year-old and got through it – and you have a player who has always just gone about his business, never asking for accolades while almost always being a target. When his goal-scoring talents made him the focal point for the opposition’s best checkers, he became more of a playmaker, finding the open man when the attention was overloaded on him. He finally slayed the personal demon that was Boston’s Zdeno Chara by tallying crucial goals and points in last year’s instant classic first-round playoff loss to the B’s, even with the 6-foot-9 Norris winner on the ice. Is he a bit shy around the media? Sure, but look at his past and it’s not hard to see why.

At the University of Minnesota, he and his teammates were secretly videotaped at a bar by a local news team for an expose on underage drinking (Kessel wasn’t actually caught imbibing, but he was there when he shouldn’t have been). When his cancer became a big news story, he did a photo shoot for a cover story with us at The Hockey News, but was reticent about the pictures because a major U.S. sports magazine had just made fun of his acne in a similar article.

And of course there was the trade from Boston to Toronto that saw the Bruins receive draft picks that turned into Tyler Seguin (second overall in 2010), Dougie Hamilton (ninth overall in ’11) and Jared Knight (32nd overall in 2010). Seguin would win a Stanley Cup with the Bruins the next season and Kessel has spent an inordinate amount of time fielding the same question from a legion of beat writers about the trade. Plus, he was picked last overall in the All-Star Game’s first-ever player draft and Alex Ovechkin took a picture of him sitting by himself. Couple people wrote about that one, too…

So I can understand why Kessel doesn’t really like to talk to the media – and it’s my job to talk to Kessel as part of the media.

He is the best player on the most divisive team in hockey and one of the most divisive in sports. Being a Maple Leaf instantly makes him more popular and more hated than if he played for St. Louis or Ottawa or San Jose. But once the season begins, I have a feeling we’ll see the same old Kessel – putting up numbers and trying to keep a low profile.

Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.

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