“A guy beat him up ice – nobody should ever beat Phil Kessel up ice the way he skates – just because it wasn't that important to him,” Quinn said. “I said to him ‘You need to be a well-rounded player.'
“He looked at me with this bewildered look and said ‘Well I'll just go out and get another goal.' “
Because Kessel was born only two months after Sidney Crosby, the comparisons were inevitable. Many in the game even predicted they would go first overall, back to back, in 2005 and 2006.
In his draft year, Kessel put up 51 points in 39 games as the second youngest player in Division I college hockey. His ice time, however, declined at the University of Minnesota, and he struggled at the 2006 world junior tournament.
Even more troubling, the NHL teams picking high in the '06 draft weren't sure what to make of this peculiar kid from Wisconsin. Kessel struggled through pre-draft interviews, relative to more polished personalities such as Jonathan Toews and Jordan Staal.
While Crosby went first in 2005, the St. Louis Blues picked defenceman Erik Johnson out of the U.S. development program a year later. Kessel, despite holding the program's career records for goals and points, and having finished sixth in NCAA scoring as a rookie, fell to the Boston Bruins with the No. 5 pick.
“We weren't sure about him,” recalled one senior scout whose team passed on Kessel. “He was a little immature. What we gathered, and I don't know him that well, but he didn't seem like a very likeable person. I'm not sure about that, but that was the knock against him then.”
And that talk stayed with Kessel as he made his way to the NHL.
A HOME IN TORONTO
Kessel lasted only three seasons in Boston. He didn't fit in with a veteran dressing room and an old-school coach in Claude Julien.
In the 2008 playoffs, after he'd scored 19 goals with 18 assists and led the NHL with five shootout-deciding goals in the regular season, Kessel was consigned to the press box as a healthy scratch for three consecutive games against the Montreal Canadiens.
A year later, the Bruins had seen enough of his one-way game, seemingly aloof approach and resistance to changing his ways.
A high-profile trade in 2009 that involved three high draft picks going the other way brought him to Toronto. General manager Brian Burke bet big – with a five-year, $27-million contract – that Kessel would mature into the player scouts first saw in that high-flying 14-year-old.
And while it's taken more than five years since he was drafted, Kessel is beginning to make that transformation happen. Now in his third season under coach Ron Wilson, he has improved defensively, turning in more nights as that well-rounded player Quinn had encouraged.
Kessel, who lives in Toronto with his long-time girlfriend Brittany from Madison, has also integrated smoothly into the Leafs dressing room, becoming friends with captain Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak and Armstrong over the past two years.
More than simply being a reclusive goal scorer, his teammates now all know Kessel as an ace golfer (with a seven handicap), table-tennis champ, football fan and a poker player.
His latest nickname, “Big Tuna” – because of Kessel's appearances in tuna commercials during recent games – is also starting to catch on.
“He's a real easygoing, good-hearted guy,” Armstrong said. “He's a simple guy: What you see is what you get. I know he comes across as a quiet, shy guy, but when he's around us, he's just a regular guy.”
“He's pretty quiet,” added John-Michael Liles. “But just a solid person, a good teammate.”
Kessel's family, meanwhile, has seen a remarkable transformation since the trade to Toronto, as his work ethic and dedication in the off-season seem more determined than ever.
“He couldn't be happier with the situation he's in right now,” Blake Kessel said. “He loves feeding off the passion of people. He's really excited to be in a spot like that, where fans are so into every game …
“The only thing he has focused on the whole year is winning, basically, and getting the team back to the playoffs. That was his main goal this entire summer.”
Quinn isn't surprised to see Kessel make good on the talent that was always there.
“I think all young players need to overcome their personalities,” he said. “I deal with that every day at the American League level. Some guys just grow up later than others.”Report Typo/Error