CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Phil Kessel laughed and broadly smiled when reporters relayed the ferocious fan backlash against Pittsburgh media this summer after stories appeared regarding discord with Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan and trade rumors. He And he kept smiling.
“Fans have been great to me,” Kessel conceded. “We’ve had some great years here, and I love them. They’ve always been supportive, and they’re great fans here.”
For those who took the summer away from hockey, Pittsburgh or even the country, Pittsburgh media including Pittsburgh Hockey Now found itself buried under an avalanche of attacks and defenses of Kessel. The mere mention of his name in connection with trade rumors or organization conflict brought hundreds of angry tweets, emails, and sentiments. One gets the sense Kessel enjoyed the defense. Really enjoyed it. He didn’t wait for the question to finish before the Cheshire cat smile came across his face.
It wasn’t Kessel’s words as much as his expression that answered the question of how he felt about the situation. Perhaps it was Kessel’s revenge after being buried under his own avalanche of negativity in Toronto.
Despite a career-highs in points (92), assists (58), power-play assists (30), and tying a career-high with 12 power-play goals, Kessel was widely seen as ineffective in the playoffs despite nine points (1g, 8a) in 12 games. He was assumed to be injured as he averaged only 1.5 shots per game in the postseason.
One of the reported issues between Kessel and the Penguins coaching staff was Kessel’ reluctance to take some games off and get healthy before the playoffs. Kessel has played 692 consecutive games. Kessel also downplayed his injury without conceding broaching the broader topics.
“I mean everyone has injuries. Every year, you’ve had an injury or two and just whatever. You play,” he deadpanned. “I had a point per game or something (in the playoffs). So it wasn’t too bad, was it?”
Multiple media outlets, including Pittsburgh Hockey Now, reported some in the Penguins organization were unhappy Kessel continued to play in the regular season despite injury. Those stories preceded reports of conflict between Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan and Kessel. Sullivan did his best to downplay those reports at the NHL Draft in June after initial incongruity between his dismissal of Kessel’s injury and General Manager Jim Rutherford’s more serious assessment. Sunday was the first time Kessel addressed the situation.
“I think some people make issues that aren’t there. It is what it is,” he said.
Pittsburgh Hockey Now pried into his desire to play with Malkin but didn’t get far, “No say. You’ll have to ask (Sullivan).”
(Here is the full interview with Kessel, a two-time Stanley Cup champion from Pittsburgh Sports Live)
Like many of the Penguins, Kessel didn’t traverse the globe seeking adventures. While most players talked about rest or preparing for the coming season, Kessel had a more succinct answer, Sunday.
“Same old sh**,” Kessel said.
And with that, the legend of Phil Kessel grew and memes were born.