Former Gopher Phil Kessel picks the NHL version of a Vegas residency in the third period of his career
The NHL's streak for consecutive games played is well within his reach, and former Gophers star Phil Kessel's latest career move means a potential return to the spotlight that he has generally shunned in favor of letting his game do the talking.
LAS VEGAS – In the entertainment world, it is common for popular performers to stop touring at some point in their careers and set up a residency on the Las Vegas Strip, where fans can come visit and see them put on a show on a regularly-scheduled basis. Acts like Usher, Luke Bryan, Shania Twain, Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart can be seen there on a regular basis these days. And maybe there is a similar plan ahead for a former Minnesota Gophers star, via his latest career transaction.
He played college hockey in one of the game’s biggest media markets, and has played for a paycheck in Boston and Toronto, where the NHL media spotlight burns brighter than just about anywhere. Still, in 16 years as a professional, Phil Kessel has never truly overcome his unease with a microphone in his face. The somewhat shy, introverted off-ice personality we met during his one season in Dinkytown is still there, even at age 34 with two Stanley Cup rings in his possession.
In some ways, the last three seasons with Arizona were perfect for Kessel, as the Coyotes have become the NHL’s version of the witness relocation program. Crowds are usually small, and the NHL is notably down the media pecking order in Phoenix, well behind more traditional warm-weather sports like football, baseball and basketball. He could quietly keep racking up games played, keep making his mark on the nightly score sheet, keep earning a notable paycheck — one estimate has him earning over $90 million in his career to date — and do it without the pressure of the fans or the media that might be a bigger factor elsewhere.
So Kessel’s decision this week to sign a one-year pact with the Vegas Golden Knights and play in a market where the spotlight burns brighter than just about anywhere may have come as a surprise to some. But for Kessel, who turns 35 in October, it represents a chance to chase perhaps one more playoff run in the twilight of his career.
“I’m excited. It’s a great organization and a great team in a winning place,” Kessel said shortly after the signing was announced, in a Zoom call with reporters. “When you get a chance to play on a good team that wants to win, you’re always looking forward to it.”
Arizona assists and anonymity
Kessel added that he felt like he had gotten lost in Arizona, playing for a team that finished well out of the playoff picture the last two seasons. The Coyotes on-ice struggles were not for lack of production from the guy who wore number 81. He led the Coyotes offensively in the abbreviated 2020-21 season, and while his goal numbers dropped to a career-low 8 last season, he was Arizona’s top set-up man with 44 assists. He’s done all of that while proving to be one of the NHL’s most durable players.
Kessel enters the 2022-23 season having played in 982 consecutive games. That is seven shy of the NHL record of 989 – a streak which came to an end in March 2022 when the Philadelphia Flyers scratched defenseman Keith Yandle from a late-season game. Barring an injury or illness, Kessel will likely suit up for consecutive game number 990 on Oct. 25 in San Jose, making him the NHL’s all-time iron man.
Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon, announcing the signing of Kessel for one year at $1.5 million, talked about him as a top nine forward and praised consistent point production and the versatility of a player who can fill special teams roles as well as eating up 5-on-5 minutes.
“Last year on a team that struggled and was out of the playoffs early, he still found a way to put up 52 points,” McCrimmon said. “He’s been able to play on some really good teams and was a really important member of two Stanley Cup teams in Pittsburgh…he really is motivated and feels a little bit like he’s been forgotten in Arizona.”
Good Gopher get
On the ice, Kessel has rarely been forgotten. He was hailed as the next American star all the way back to his days playing youth hockey in Madison, Wisconsin, and was the top recruit in college hockey while playing for the USA Hockey U18 team in 2005. Playing a game against the Gophers in Minneapolis, Kessel may or may not have noticed the Goldy Gopher mascot dangling a U of M jersey over the visiting bench, tempting Kessel to put it on.
It was a massive recruiting coup for Don Lucia’s Gophers program when Kessel picked the arch-rival of his hometown Badgers and when he scored a Gophers goal at the Kohl Center in Wisconsin and the boos rained down, Kessel famously cupped a glove to his ear as if to say, “bring it on.” He lasted just one season in college hockey, and signed with the Bruins in the summer of 2006 after they picked him fifth overall in that year’s NHL draft. But left a lasting impression at the U of M, helping the Gophers win a WCHA title and being named the conference’s rookie of the year after posting 51 points in 39 games.
“His skating and his release of his shot were two things that really stood out,” Lucia said. “He had really thick legs and a good hockey build, so there was a strong base. And then, with that release of his wrist shot, he was deadly with it, and you saw that continue in the NHL.”
Lucia noted that as beloved as Kessel was among teammates within the closed society of the locker room, he was never comfortable in the spotlight. Often the center of attention in Boston and known for feuding with the media in Toronto, Kessel found a comfortable spot in Pittsburgh where he could do his on-ice work and let stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang get the bulk of fan and media attention.
“He thrived so well in Pittsburgh because he never had to be the focal point,” Lucia said. “He’s a happy-go-lucky kid and a good locker room guy because the guys like him, but he didn’t ever relish the media part of it.”
So with his upcoming Vegas residency established and the iron man record well within reach, the only question about Kessel’s numbers that remain involve the one that he will have on his back.
Since his NHL career began, Kessel has worn 81, but that Knights sweater is already taken by Jonathan Marchessault. It has been noted by more than one fan on Twitter that on the Vegas roster, 26 – the number Kessel wore during his one season in maroon and gold – is currently open.