Call it the Curse of Phil Kessel. The former Pittsburgh Penguins iron man who hasn’t missed a game since 2010 and didn’t miss a game during his four seasons in Pittsburgh apparently took with him that health and luck during the unceremonious split between him and the Penguins last June.
When Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth in 1919, the Red Sox didn’t win another World Series for 85 years. Not even dredging a pond in 2002 for an old piano which Ruth legendarily hurled from a balcony (take that Antonio Brown) could break the curse.
Chicago tavern owner William Sianis placed the Billy Goat curse upon the Chicago Cubs in 1945 after Sianis and his goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field because the odor bothered others. Perhaps it was a support goat? That curse lasted 71 years.
Back when people read magazines and Sports Illustrated existed for real, being on the cover was a great honor. And a jinx. Just like being on the cover of the annual EA Sports John Madden game (Again, sorry Antonio Brown).
The Penguins and Kessel had run their course. Four years. Two Stanley Cups. Developing acrimony, declining results and the Penguins desperate need for salary cap relief caused the great split in June 2019. The Penguins shopped Kessel but he didn’t like the first taker, the Minnesota Wild.
So the Penguins kept offering him to other teams until finally the Arizona Coyotes, who were the one team to which Kessel wanted to go, accepted. The Penguins received a prospect defenseman (PO Joseph) and winger Alex Galchenyuk.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the Penguins also received the Curse of Phil Kessel.
The Penguins injury woes began in September. Bryan Rust blocked a shot and missed four weeks. Just two games into the season, preferred Kessel linemate Evgeni Malkin was felled by the curse and missed a month. Then Kessel replacement Alex Galchenyuk followed a day later. Defensemen Kris Letang and Justin Schultz who fed Kessel on the Penguins power play have been affected. And Sidney Crosby who never played well with Phil suffered his first significant injury in seven years.
Nick Bjugstad who didn’t mesh with Kessel on the ice was hit hard, too. Brian Dumoulin was not spared. He is out for eight weeks. The power play was also hit with an 0-for-27 slump in November and Galchenyuk has been limited to just two goals.
Sure, the Penguins now play an honest brand of hockey. They finish checks, block shots and battle in the physical areas of the rink. The Penguins are competitive despite the volume of injured players. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said, “It’s really fun to watch as a coach when you watch how hard the guys are playing for one another.”
But that only seems to anger the curse.
Kessel tries hard. Loves the game. As Sullivan spun it many times, “He’s competitive in his own way.” Kessel has played in 803 consecutive games. Friday night in Pittsburgh will be No. 804.
Friday night, the Penguins may get Rust and Schultz back into the lineup. The team has been close to healthy before, but that lasted only two periods. Perhaps a sacrifice such as a video tribute and ovation will lift The Curse of Phil Kessel.