For a brief shining moment, Phil Kessel was allowed to believe that Brian Burke thought he was a better hockey player than anyone the Leafs GM could draft in the first round of the next two years. That’s gotta make a young man feel pretty good about his talent, his career, his future in the National Hockey League. That kind of confidence should lead to some pretty inspired play and, for a sniper like Kessel, lotsa pucks in the net for my beloved Buds.
So why did we feel the need to beat the livin’ crap out of the poor kid almost from the moment he joined the club?
I’m guilty of it myself. The first interview I saw featuring Phil Kessel, I thought “oh my God, this guy is thick, he’s dumb as a goal post”. In the second one, I paid closer attention and saw some signs of an active mind - I thought “oh my God, this guy has a terrible attitude, he doesn’t care, why'd we trade for him?”. By the third, I realized that the poor guy has no social presence whatsoever - whether from shyness or from lack of practice. My first post on the subject was to hope that the Leafs would get the kid some coaching, maybe resurrect the corpse of Dale Carnegie, perform some voodoo public speaking mojo transfer ceremony.
But once I watched him play, I thought “who cares if he sounds like the bastard love child of Goofy and Cliff Clavin? This kid is Mike Bossy!” I even let myself dream that Mats Sundin would take one look at that wrister and pull out his P90X DVDs, get himself ripped and ready for one more big season. How many do you think Phil would have at this point in the season with Mats drawing the checkers and then teeing it up like he did for Darcy Tucker? 35? 40? Jonas “Who Dat” Hoglund got 29 fer crissakes!
Sure, Phil Kessel gets paid a lot of money to perform a job that any one of us would kill to have – but the money isn’t his fault, that’s just the going rate for a guy who’s gonna put 30 in the net year after year – with occasional gusts to 40-45. So let’s forget about the money and try to put some perspective on the situation.
When I was his age, I was living in a university dorm room and working at Thrifty Car Rental and the Oxford Street Ballet to make a few bucks. And I wasn’t back checking and going into the corners very hard either.
The only person who worried about what I was doing every day was my mother and she sure didn’t publish it in the paper or shout it on the radio. And, man, am I happy about that. Because, if she did, I would have been embarrassed, ashamed and maybe even gone all the way into the tank. I sure would have taken my alcohol consumption to a whole new level, maybe even turned pro.
So here’s a guy who has a boss who’s a bit of a hardass, certainly not a real nurturing kind of guy, and every day he goes to work, he has tens of thousands of people critiquing his performance – every single friggin’ day! And he’s asked to explain himself over and over again – and if he says something even remotely colourful, it turns into more questions and more scrutiny.
And his boss hasn’t really filled his cubicle with the latest in high tech equipment, poor Phil’s cranking along with a Bozak 286mhz and a 1993 Crabb-o-matic.
His job’s not easy. Join a good beer league where the defencemen all play tough like Paul Coffey and the goalies all have bad backs and are already loaded up before the game starts. See how many 30 goal seasons you have even with that kind of competition.
Leave Phil Kessel the F@#$ Alone!
Let Phil Kessel play hockey. And while you’re at it let Nazim Kadri play hockey too. And Keith Aulie. And whoever else seems to struggle a little. Spread the coverage over all the Leafs and lighten the load on the individuals. Heck, even leave Ron Wilson alone for a game or two – but that’s it, he is, after all, the coach.
Now, I’m not trying to completely blame the media or the fans or the coach or the trade for Phil Kessel’s struggles. But we all contribute, myself included, we Leaf fans are a negative bunch with a beer and the TV, damn those friggin’ Leafs! Kessel hasn’t scored in 11 games!
And you can say that all the attention comes with the job, it’s part of the game and that’s why they make the big money – but you know what? The players are just people. Not all athletes have bullet-proof egos. Some can stand up to scrutiny better than others and unfortunately Phil Kessel is not one of the strong ones. Well, compared to Brett Hull he’s not but I guarantee you he’s got a lot more mental fortitude than you or I. Think about it – how well would you stand up to the constant pressure? I'd be selling my skates on Kijiji.
I like Phil Kessel. I’m glad we have him on the Leafs. I like the young guys we have on the farm and on the big club. In 2 or 3 years, we’ll be a regular playoff club. After that, who knows? But I do know this though, if we keep crushing the kids’ spirits, we’ll never know what they can become as mature players in the NHL. I, for one, would like to find out.