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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel skates through center ice during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings in Toronto December 19, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (Mike Cassese/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel skates through center ice during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings in Toronto December 19, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

JAMES MIRTLE

Phil Kessel: The Leafs' silent star Add to ...

David Quinn can't help but chuckle when he pictures Phil Kessel in Toronto.

Bright lights. Plenty of cameras. And all those questions coming at him.

His former junior coach remembers Kessel as an implausibly shy 16-year-old who dominated on the ice yet was always at a loss for words when asked to talk about his play.

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In that respect, not much has changed. Eight years later, Kessel is the on-ice face of the Maple Leafs and has become something of a silent star in Toronto.

He tends to avoid attention, often escaping the dressing room before the media horde arrives. Kessel usually appears when summoned but the ensuing process can be painful, as he typically offers a few short sentences while slowly inching away from the cameras.

“I would imagine he's uncomfortable,” said Quinn, who coached Kessel with the U.S. development program, the world juniors and world championship.

“Hands in his pocket, looking down at his feet.”

“The last thing he wants to do is talk to 40 people standing around with microphones. He'd rather go out and play video games and eat Skittles.”

It is a curious marriage, this pairing of the shy 6-foot, 200-pound forward from a small city in Wisconsin with the hockey nuthouse that can be Toronto. Yet, somehow, it is working. At 24, Kessel ranked third in the NHL's individual points race before Friday's action, going into Saturday's game in Winnipeg against the Jets. He is showing every sign of turning into a perennial all-star and winning over teammates, coaches and fans.

He has, in many ways, grown up. And in the process, Kessel has found a home in the last place one would expect an introverted NHL player to thrive. Despite his persistent unease with media attention, he leads all players in public voting for the all-star game to be played in Ottawa in January.

“Phil always had that talent that was unmistakable,” said Kessel's younger brother, Blake, a defenceman in the Philadelphia Flyers system. “He had the stickhandling, the moves – everything like that. He's always been that player at the top.”

THE OTHER PHIL

According to those who know him well, Kessel comes by both his athletic talent and his reserved personality naturally.

He is, they say, the spitting image of his old man.

“They're extremely similar,” Blake Kessel said. “They're quiet people, and people misunderstand that sometimes, but those two have been really close. They are kind of the same person – it's scary sometimes.”

Roughly 30 years ago, Phil Kessel Sr., was a quarterback at Northern Michigan University, where his quick feet and good hands convinced the Washington Redskins to take him in the 10th round of the 1981 NFL draft. After brief stints as a backup with the CFL's Calgary Stampeders and USFL's Birmingham Stallions, he returned to Wisconsin to raise a family.

When the Leafs had a road trip with all of their fathers earlier this season, Kessel's teammates were struck by the resemblance between the two Phils.

“It's crazy,” teammate Colby Armstrong said. “They're really kind of the same guy. It was cool to go for dinner with both of them; it was like sitting next to twins.”

A BUDDING STAR

In addition to taking after his dad, Kessel landed a great hockey mentor as a youth.

Enrolled in the sport as a four-year-old after his parents saw his cousin, David Moss (now of the Calgary Flames), play as a youngster, Kessel was coached throughout minor hockey by Bob Suter, a defenceman with the Miracle-on-Ice U.S. team that won a gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

After his playing career Suter had become the dean of hockey in Madison, Wis., where a pint-sized kid named Phil with a penchant for scoring goals would show up at his rink.

Kessel excelled from the beginning, outperforming his family's wildest expectations and putting himself on a fast track to the next level. At age 14, Kessel scored 176 goals in 86 games to lead his bantam team to second place in the national championships. At 15, he joined Quinn as one of the youngest players with the U.S. national development program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

At first, Kessel was initially intimidated by the move seven hours' drive east of his hometown. He grew increasingly comfortable after recognizing his skating skills and offensive talent set him apart.

“I don't think it took him too long to realize he was going to be the best player in the national program,” Quinn said.

The trick, however, was to get Kessel to venture into the defensive end of the rink. Quinn remembers one key game at the under-17 world championship where, after scoring two highlight-reel goals, Kessel failed to back-check and gifted the opposition with a scoring chance. The next day, he told the talented teen that he needed to play harder at both ends of the ice – a conversation that a succession of coaches would have with him.

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