GLENDALE, Ariz. — Phil Kessel is something of an everyman hero to hockey fans. In a sport where nearly every player is ripped, his physique is a tad doughy. He is notoriously averse to the media song and dance, more than a tad prickly when asked a tough question. On social media, he has laughed at himself more than a few times.
On the ice he is, and always was, a great skater with a heck of a wrister, pucks flying off a stick with a candy-cane tape job. He has beaten goalies 357 times in the regular season with one of the softest sticks in the league. He is a unique bird.
The kid the Bruins drafted No. 5 overall in 2006 now plays in Arizona, dealt here by the Penguins last offseason for Alex Galchenyuk. He’ll soon play his 1,000th regular-season game, though he only turned 32 on Wednesday. The reason he’s about to get there at such a young age: He hasn’t missed a game in nine years. If he keeps alive the league’s second-longest active ironman streak (776 games with Saturday’s 1-0 loss to the Bruins), he’ll reach the millennium mark next Saturday at Colorado.
“A great accomplishment,” said Zdeno Chara, he of 1,487 games and counting. “It’s not easy in this league.”
Long before the two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh and all the scrutiny in Toronto, Kessel played three seasons in Boston (66-60—126 in 222 games). After he broke out for 36 goals in 2008-09, the Bruins traded him to the Maple Leafs for three draft picks: Toronto’s first- (Tyler Seguin) and second-rounder (Jared Knight) in 2010, and its first-rounder (Dougie Hamilton) in 2011. There is no trace on the Bruins’ roster from that trade, but a few players have Kessel memories. They are mainly centered around a few scary weeks in the winter of his rookie year.
Kessel was a “very shy kid” with NHL-level skating and shooting ability, recalled Chara, then in his first year as captain. His opinion about the person was cemented during Kessel’s December 2006 bout with testicular cancer.
“It was tough to see,” said Chara of Kessel, who was 19. “I thought it made him stronger.”
Kessel had surgery and missed 10 games, returning Jan. 9, 2007. His perseverance earned him the Bill Masterton Trophy. Since, he has continued to be an advocate for early detection. Last September, Kessel, then with Pittsburgh, was honored by the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program.
“I was just lucky,” he said during a speech. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to stand by and not help raise awareness.”
Patrice Bergeron, then a 21-year-old alternate captain, said Kessel was upbeat and positive.
“Always,” said Bergeron, who had his own medical scares, concussions nearly ending his young career. “Obviously we didn’t see him for a while when he was recovering from that surgery, but that guy was very resilient. It was a tough time for anyone. I thought he handled it pretty remarkably.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for that guy. He’s a tremendous talent. People are all over him sometimes but he’s had a tremendous career.”
After a pair of one-goal wins, it has been re-confirmed that this Bruins team doesn’t get rattled.
“It’s tough to be nervous about the first game of the season when you just went to the Final,” Brad Marchand said.
Sure, they have Marchand, Bergeron, Chara, and other veterans for tight situations. They also used Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner, and Matt Grzelcyk to fend off Dallas and Arizona’s final charges. This is by design.
“It’s been a work in progress for me, being comfortable in these close games,” said coach Bruce Cassidy, in his third full season behind the Bruins’ bench. “ ’Cause we’re paid to win. Yet we want to put young kids out there so they get better so they get comfortable. We’re always balancing that: Do you constantly push your veteran guys that have been there, or do you allow these guys to learn on the fly?”
Trusting those with less experience gives them confidence and allows Cassidy to keep his timeout in his pocket. He doesn’t have to scramble.
“David Pastrnak a couple years ago was out a lot at the end of games with Bergy and Marsh. I think he ended up with five empty-net goals in his contract year, which did me no favors with my general manager. [Pastrnak had three that year, 2016-17.] But some of the other guys we’ve used now — Kuraly who’s a young guy, Griz will be out there at times — we’re trying to build that into their games.”
Next in line, Cassidy said, could be Jake DeBrusk. The 22-year-old winger hasn’t taken many end-of-game shifts.
He surely wouldn’t mind a few empty-netters, either. He is up for a contract next summer.
David Krejci (undisclosed lower-body injury) made his season debut, skating 15:57 and lacking pop in his stride. “A couple outside drives, but I thought he was rusty with the puck,” Cassidy said. “He hasn’t practiced a lot recently.” Krejci logged 1:22 in his only preseason game. His return pushed David Backes out of the lineup . . . Cassidy said Joakim Nordstrom (lower body) could be available by the end of the road trip, which concludes in Colorado on Thursday . . . No Bruin finished above water at the faceoff dot (35 percent collectively). Bergeron, typically an ace, won a team-high 42 percent. He, Wagner, and Par Lindholm were a combined 0 for 12 on defensive zone draws.
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports.