It isn’t always easy being in the AHL while your older brother is a rising star one rung higher in the NHL.
Blake Kessel knows. He knows because he hears about his sibling, Toronto Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, on many nights while patrolling the blueline for the Adirondack Phantoms in the minors.
And it’s not often positive.
“I get the typical ‘oh you’re never going to be your brother,’” Blake Kessel said in a recent interview. “I get ‘you’re only here because of your brother’ and stuff like that.
“It’s something you learn to live with. Let it roll off your back. I’m proud of my brother so it doesn’t really affect me. There’s always some good ones that I get to laugh at though.”
While Phil is quiet and often reluctant to open up with the media, his younger brother is a bit different and quite personable. Only a year and a half apart in age (24 and 22), the two are very close and spend most of the off-season together.
So as part of a feature we did on Phil Kessel a couple weeks ago, I chatted with his younger brother, Blake, at length. Because a lot of our conversation didn’t end up in the story, I wanted to post some of it here.
So here’s an in-depth Q&A with Blake Kessel, as he offers some insight into his well-known big brother and what it was like growing up together in Madison, Wis.:
How would you describe Phil away from hockey, the side of him that fans and media never see? What’s it like, in other words, having Phil Kessel as a big brother?
He’s been great to me. He honestly has done everything for me, in any way that he can. He’s always there for me, whether I have a bad couple of games or something like that. He reaches out to me when I’m down; I can always count on him to call. For a big brother, he’s basically the best I could have asked for.
In the summer it’s great because we get to spend a lot of time together. Him, myself and our little sister – we see each other a lot, which we don’t get to obviously a lot during the year. It’s pretty special.
What’s a summer in Madison like for the Kessels?
We hang out. We just do our workouts in the morning, just the three of us, and we just go golfing or skating or something pretty normal. We go see movies whenever they come out. We’re pretty normal people.
It sounds like you and Phil are pretty close.
We do spend most of our time together. He has his friends from hockey and everything like that, but for both of us, it’s like, we moved away [at a young age] He did in his freshman year of high school to play with the U.S. team and I was gone and travelling every weekend and stuff like that. So we really kind of spend a lot of time together [in the summer]and hang out and do normal things as a family.
You mentioned golf. A few of Phil’s teammates told me that he’s a great golfer. John-Michael Liles said they chirp each other about their scores and Colby Armstrong said Phil won’t let him play with him anymore because he’s not very good. So what kind of a handicap does he have?
He’s getting down there. I think he’s around a seven. I think he’s trending down, but you never know. I haven’t played with him since the summer. It’s pretty interesting out on the golf course when we get out there.
I’m not quite that good. But we like to play and get the matchup going once in a while, with Dad, Mom and the little sister. It gets competitive out there.
You guys have a pretty athletic family -- both your parents were college athletes, your sister is considered one of the up-and-coming American female players, and then there’s you and Phil. That must have been interesting growing up.
We basically played everything. We latched onto hockey obviously and that was our main one, but we played baseball in Little League and tennis, golf, all that kind of stuff. We used to go to all different sporting events. It’s pretty special to have parents like we have, giving their time to take us to different stuff.
Another thing the Leafs players all say Phil’s really good at is ping-pong, that he’s the dressing room champ. Where’s that come from?
We actually have a ping-pong table down in the basement that we play with in the summer. He’s got those quick hands – so he’s pretty good at that. It gets competitive down there, too. Usually it’s him versus his sister – I’m okay but not quite to their level. Those two get pretty intense down there.
How has your season gone in Adirondack?
Our season’s gone pretty well so far – obviously everything can always go a little better. It’s a development thing for me. I’m really excited that I get to learn here, especially from some of the guys that have been around the league and guys that have more experience.
It’s something that you’ve got to learn, that it’s definitely a different game from college hockey, and it’s been a fun experience so far.
Did you choose to play defence right from the beginning? How did you end up in different positions?
Actually I was a forward up until peewees and then [former Miracle on Ice defenceman]Bob Suter, who was Phil’s coach too, he just took me under his wing and said you’re going to be our defenceman of the family.
He converted me over to that. He’s someone that really pushed me early on to get better at just the little things. He obviously has so much experience and the Suter family has such talent, he really is brilliant. A lot of it helps, having that coaching at a young age.
And were you and Phil always different players growing up?
Well, Phil always had that talent that was unmistakable. He had the stickhandling, the moves – everything like that. He's always been that player at the top. Everyone kept saying you’re not going to be able to do it and he just kept working hard to prove everyone wrong. It’s been working out so far.
I was a little younger, I had to develop that stuff, I had to play a bit of a smarter game and just learn from other people and learn from other players and develop that way.
You were saying earlier that Phil is someone who you rely on a little bit – how often are you guys able to stay in touch during the season?
We try to every once in a while for sure. I know he’s got his busy schedule and I’ve got mine and things tend to overlap. But if I ever need something, that’s when I know he’s going to be there, no matter what. I can call him and he’ll get back to me as soon as he can – and he’ll be the first one there if I’m every in trouble or anything.
What does Phil say about playing in Toronto? I’ve talked to him about it, but he can be pretty shy and hard to read sometimes. What does he say to you and his other friends and family about the Leafs?
Honestly, he couldn't be happier with the situation he's in right now. We’ve loved hockey forever and 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. It’s really kind of special up there to have so many people follow you and support your team. That’s something he really likes.
He loves the city. He’s developed some great relationships there – some of his best friends, guys that he’ll talk to every day in the summer, are on the team.
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. That’s what he was aiming towards.
Who do you see him talking with all the time from the Leafs?
It’s different guys here and there. Armstrong. Once in a while he’ll talk to Phaneuf. He kind of talks to everyone a little bit.
Bozak, obviously. He talks to him a lot. Those two are pretty close. The Bert and Ernie thing [a comment made by teammate Mike Komisarek last year]was pretty funny. I enjoyed that one actually.
What’s it like for your family to watch what Phil’s done this season, becoming one of the NHL’s scoring leaders through the first few months of the year?
Obviously we really like to see that. I think it’s really finally starting to pay off for him. He’s really started working harder and harder over the last few years to devote himself to the game and to gets to the level. He wants to be there every year, that’s something that he’s had as a goal. And he’s worked really hard for it.
We’re really proud of him. It’s great when we all get to watch games on TV. Hopefully it won’t work out for either of us on the schedule [to see each other in person]– hopefully they’ll go deep in the playoffs and so will we. I’m hoping actually not to get to go to any of his games this year.