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Vegas Golden Knights forward Phil Kessel played his 990th straight game of the regular season last night in San Jose, breaking the NHL record set by Keith Yandle last season. Given 35-year-old Kessel’s relatively soft physique and legendary questionable diet, his rise to the NHL Ironman title has to be one of hockey’s most unlikely feats. But there is more to Kessel than meets the eye. In honor of his streak in back-to-back games and the 400th NHL goal he scored last night, here are some fun facts about Phil:
He’s an incredible athlete… Kessel’s doughy (for a pro hockey player) 5-foot-11, 208-pound frame and receding hairline belie some serious physical gifts. Before joining the NHL, the talented Wisconsinite was touted as America’s next big star. He amassed 286 points in an 86-game season at the bantam level and then scored 51 points in 39 games as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Minnesota in 2005-06. That same season, he beat Russian phenomenon Evgeni Malkin for the junior world title by 11 points in seven games. The scouts there called Kessel the fastest player of the tournament and raved about his shot. A few months later, he was drafted by the Boston Bruins fifth overall. Sixteen years later, he is one of only 12 US-born players to have reached the 400-goal mark.
…and not just on the hockey field. In addition to his prowess on the ice, his teammates rave about Kessel’s ability in the weight room, on the golf course and even in higher cardiovascular sports like basketball and soccer. “He’s incredibly athletic,” former teammate Blake Wheeler told Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford. “He’s the guy who’s good at everything he does.” From all accounts of people who’ve played with him, Kessel is also easy to get along with.
The start of his professional career was marred by health problems. Here’s another reason why the idea of Phil Kessel: Ironman once seemed so unlikely. A few months into his rookie season with the Bruins, Kessel underwent surgery for testicular cancer. But he returned to the lineup just a month later, playing in almost every Boston game for the rest of that season and all 82 in the next (perhaps an early reference to the Iron Man in the making). Kessel missed a dozen games in 2008/09 after which he was traded to Toronto. His Leafs debut was delayed due to offseason shoulder surgery that caused him to miss the first 12 games. Kessel eventually played for Toronto on November 3, 2009. He hasn’t missed a game since then.
The Ironman series spans almost 13 years and four teams. Though he averaged more than 30 goals per season (including one cut short by lockout) during his six years with the Leafs, Kessel’s tenure there ended poorly as his laid-back personality proved a tough companion for Toronto’s deeply wounded fans, media and organization. After the Leafs traded him to Pittsburgh in a pay dump during the 2015 offseason, Kessel got the last laugh by promptly winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. Sidney Crosby clinched the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP both years, but Kessel made a strong case in 2016 when he led the Penguins in goals (10) and points (22). He continued to excel the following year, scoring eight goals and 23 points in the postseason. After Pittsburgh, Kessel spent three years in the desert (literally and metaphorically) at lowly Arizona, where he had a respectable 52 points last season. Say what you will about the Coyotes (and we have), but they helped Kessel keep his winning streak alive last March by allowing him to play just one shift at a game in Detroit before he hopped on a charter flight arranged by the team so he could join him for the birth of their first child. If you count playoff games, Kessel has now played in 1,071 consecutive competitions. For comparison, only nine percent of current NHL players were in the league when his winning streak began in November 2009.
Yes, his diet could use some work. Although he only became a father around eight months ago, Kessel has been sporting a father’s body for some time, thanks to his notorious fondness for junk food. Toronto sportswriter Steve Simmons is still being criticized for his long-ago accusation that Kessel was frequenting the city’s hot-dog stands (a dig Phil deliciously trolled after winning the cup), but there’s at least one ( Popcorn) core truth to this possibly apocryphal tale. At a time when many pro athletes are extremely careful about what they eat, Kessel’s teammates tell of a Sour Patch Kids fanatic whose dorm room at the Sochi Olympics was covered in candy wrappers and who happily sipped on Coke between periods. But this tendency to swine is a trait, not a flaw, when it comes to Kessel’s appeal. His Hall of Fame fall may be a bit thin, having never come close to a major regular-season individual award, but hockey fans never seem to get enough of Phil.
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