March 28, 2023
Kessel talks to about his Ironman streak and his love of the game

Kessel talks to about his Ironman streak and his love of the game

The Vegas Golden Knights forward, sitting in his cabin at City National Arena after practice on Friday, was just asked if he remembered the last time he missed an NHL game. Given that he’s close to becoming the all-time Ironman in the NHL, you’d expect him to know. Most players would.

But Kessel is not most players.

“I have no idea,” said the 35-year-old forward. “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 people, if they said something like that, would be skeptical, cynical and maybe not believe him. But with Phil, I really don’t think he knows.

“Phil isn’t one to look back at numbers, stats and 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, beginning with the Golden Knights’ next game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday at T-Mobile Arena. (10pm ET: ATTSN-RN, TSN-4, ESPN+, SN NOW).

If, health permitting, Kessel plays the Maple Leafs on the ice, he will play his 989th straight game and tie with retired defenseman Keith Yandle for the longest streak in NHL history. A night later, he has a chance to set the record against the San Jose Sharks at the SAP Center in San Jose.

The numbers are stunning.

For the record (and for Kessel’s information), he hasn’t missed a game since October 31, 2009, when the Maple Leafs lost 5-4 to the Montreal Canadiens in a shootout at the Bell Center because a shoulder injury left him out for the first month of the season.

Three days later, on November 3, a streak was born, although no one could have predicted that at the time, let alone Kessel himself. In fact, he was brought in by defenseman Mattias Ohlund during a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in that game Toronto flattened. He was traded from the Boston Bruins to the Maple Leafs on September 18, 2009.

After sitting on his Keister for a few seconds, he brushed off the snow and stood up. And he’s been doing the same ever since, putting himself in a position to tie Yandle’s mark 4,738 days into the series.

“I’ve always been the guy who prefers to play than sit,” Kessel explained during a 10-minute chat with “I try to play whatever.

“It’s basically how it ends, isn’t it?”

Except, who knows when the streak will end? If he continues, he’ll be 1,000 on November 17th in Las Vegas. Playing consecutive games against the Arizona Coyotes.

Not even the birth of his first child could stop the series. On March 8, Kessel, then with the Coyotes, played a shift against the Detroit Red Wings and then took a private jet arranged by Arizona’s 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 was no shortage of bumps and bruises along the way. Alex Goligosky, his former teammate with the Coyotes and before that at the University of Minnesota, recalls that Kessel had a soft-tissue injury but refused to miss games while skipping practice to heal. Rick Tocchet, an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins during Kessel’s stint there, said the forward was helped by not putting himself in positions where he could be papered into the boards or frequently checked in front of the net.

“Yeah, there’s a bit of luck involved,” said Bruce Cassidy, Golden Knights coach. “And sometimes you’re lucky not to put yourself in danger knowing that some guys will get hurt if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. You turn and bump into someone. Phil was pretty good at avoiding that.

“At the same time, what he is on the cusp of doing is full credit to him.”

Kessel can’t remember all the suffering he had to overcome to keep the streak alive. He doesn’t want to either.

“There were a lot of them,” he said. “But I was just like, ‘Fuck it. I’ll go out there and play because I like to play.’ I’d rather play than sit 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: In 2016 and 2017 he helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup.

“I’ve had so many great teammates, won a few trophies, I’ve done well, don’t you think?” he said with a chuckle.

Agreed. After so many minutes into his career, how long does he plan to continue playing?

“Until someone tells me I can’t play anymore,” he laughed.


Kessel’s flirtation with NHL history ended nearly three years before his winning streak began.

Six months after the Bruins drafted him No. 5 in the 2006 NHL draft, his life changed when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer on December 11. He underwent surgery to remove the cancer and was back on the ice with Boston against the Ottawa Senators January 9, 11 games missing.

“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 whole life gets rocked like this?” said Arnott. “I remember being in Boston, being in the hospital, being at his bedside.

“Fortunately, he survived it well. But it changed him. How could it not?”

In fact, Kessel’s view of the world would be changed forever by this experience.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “It opens your eyes quickly. You learn and grow up pretty quickly. It changed who I am. In that sense, it changes your perspective on life a bit.

“Obviously, you never know what can happen in life. Life is short. What was important to me was playing. I didn’t care about the other things about the game, it just made the other things irrelevant.”

The “other stuff” Kessel refers to is in the public domain. He has never liked the limelight and often comes across as cranky, sometimes grumpy when in the limelight. He has never felt comfortable in this situation and does not apologize for it, although he has been criticized for it by the media over the years.

Kessel said his battle with cancer made him understand what’s important. Fame, notoriety, things like that, he said, aren’t.

“I’ve never really cared about what other people say 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 talk about me sometimes don’t really know the game of hockey, so you just see it that way.

“I just never really cared what they say.”

Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said Kessel’s public image is very different from the person he is behind the locker room doors. Kessel played for Arizona from 2019-22 before signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Golden Knights on August 24.

“Phil was great,” said Armstrong. “He was a big part of our organization. He’s just a very interesting person. I think he’s often misunderstood.”

In what way?

“I think sometimes when he’s going through certain phases where maybe he’s not playing well, I think there’s just conversations that you just have to have with Phil and he answers,” Armstrong said.

“He’s frustrated. People take it like he doesn’t care, and I don’t think it does. I think he cares almost too much. I think he almost takes it upon himself and he shuts down. And if you don’t read them properly, you can take it as laziness or other things. But what you ask of Phil is what Phil does. Phil sat down with me. I said, ‘Listen to this, I think you get points.’ He went out and achieved that.

“I think Phil has a lot of good qualities. He’s a paragon of skating, believe it or not, at his age and skill level, so we’re excited for him to have the opportunity to make the move to Vegas.”

Kessel has become one of the most popular Golden Knights players to date.

“Anyone who knows Phil off the ice, he’s just wonderful for the locker room,” said the Vegas defender Alex Pietrangelo said. “Everyone wants to be around him, so he’s a welcome addition to us.”

Cassidy noticed too.

“Boys love Phil here,” he said. “He has a different sense of humor. He lights up the room. I enjoyed my time with him. He loves talking about hockey. And I think he was good for Vegas.

“I’ve talked to different people about how he’s helped different dressing rooms.”

So far in his short tenure at Vegas, Kessel has shown he can take a joke just as well as a real one.

Here is an example.

Kessel has never been known for his defensive skills. He has an NHL career plus minus rating of minus 148, hardly the sort of numbers to consider for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top defensive forward.

Doesn’t matter. When he made a few good backchecking plays early in his tenure with the Golden Knights, his teammates quickly found a new moniker.

From that point on, he was known as “Selke” in the Vegas locker room.


On the face of it, Kessel will be the first to tell you that he’s not the poster child for a bodybuilding magazine cover.

He’s 5-foot-11, 208 pounds. Tocchet joked that during his career Kessel sometimes had a big belly. Social media has at times gone viral because of his perceived fondness for hot dogs.

Hardly the kind of chiseled physique you’d think would belong on a player poised to become the all-time Ironman in the NHL.

“I’m a hockey player, you know, that’s basically who I am,” Kessel said. “Just a hockey player, you know? “They come in all shapes and sizes.”

In his case, appearances can be deceiving.

“Well, I think on that side of things, look at his numbers and how good a skater he is,” Pietrangelo said. “Are these other things really important? I do not think so.

“Look at him. He is much more powerful than me. There’s a reason he’s such an elite skater, right?

Coyote Defender Shayne Gostisbehere thinks he knows why.

“The knock on Phil is that he doesn’t work, blah blah blah,” Gostisbehere said. “But when he goes to the gym, I swear to god he’s got the strongest legs I’ve ever seen.

“I mean, those pictures of the hot dogs, that aura around him, that’s what the media and everyone does. They create this bubble around him. But every player who has ever played with him knows the real Phil and that he works hard. “

As Kessel nears the record, he was superstitious. He’d rather not discuss it or hear it from people around him if it jinxes his flirtation with the story.

But it doesn’t take away from him what he’s about to accomplish.

“If you think about it, it’s really incredible,” Linemate said Jack Acorn, who as a boy in New England watched kettles play with the Bruins. “You rarely see a guy play the full 82 games all season. And to do that for so many seasons in a row is pretty impressive.”

Not that you’d ever hear Kessel brag about it.

“I just want to be known as a good teammate,” he said. “And I still enjoy playing the game.

“As long as that’s the case, I plan to continue.”

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