Every successful soap opera needs a good villain, which is why we can all be grateful for Ryan Kesler’s presence on the U.S. World Cup roster.
Kesler set the tone for the World Cup of Hockey in the first exhibition game against Canada, culminating a night of high-tempo and occasionally nasty hockey with a message-sending hit on Canadian defenceman Shea Weber.
Fans who anticipated the usual slow-as-molasses pretournament play were jolted out of their seats. Naturally, Kesler’s aggressive play provoked a fierce response from the Canadian team, and what emerged that night and in the teams’ next pretourney meeting were probably the two most intense games of meaningless hockey ever played.
The two teams, which meet again for real Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre, have veered in different directions since they split those early meetings. Canada played like world-beaters in a 6-0 rout of the Czechs on Monday, while the Americans looked overmatched and purposeless in a shutout loss to Europe.
But it only one takes victory in a short competition to get your tournament hopes back on the rails, and for two days running, the Americans have been talking about playing with greater desperation.
The United States compiled its World Cup roster largely in anticipation of this game against Canada, choosing to ignore high-end talent such as Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson and Kevin Shattenkirk in favour of grit, toughness and edge.
It was a calculated risk, and you can’t even call the resultant outrage “second-guessing” because nobody waited for the tournament to get started to heap scorn on those decisions.
But you can safely predict how Tuesday night’s game will play out, with the United States trying to set a physical tone, and Kesler leading the charge.
Kesler is a latter-day Claude Lemieux, minus the over-the-top theatrics, and it’s what sets him apart the current generation of players labelled as pests and agitators. Because of their strength and size, guys such as Kesler don’t just dart in and out to raise Cain. They get in the middle of the scrums and stay there.
When the stakes were raised, Lemieux always stepped up his game – he was bull strong, hard to play against and loved to push the rule book to its absolute limit. And maybe push it a little past the limit if the referees’ eyes were averted.
It’s what made their villainy more nuanced, like Heath Ledger as the Joker.
They are not cartoon characters. They do the hard stuff too – win face-offs, block shots, kill penalties. They fully fit the old hockey axiom – love to play with him, hate to play against him.
Canada’s Corey Perry plays with Kesler on the Anaheim Ducks, but played against him regularly in the years when Kesler was the No. 2 centre behind Henrik Sedin with the Vancouver Canucks.
“Kes and I had many battles when he was in Vancouver – regular season, playoff games, we even fought each other a couple of times,” Perry said. “He’s a guy who gets under your skin – and does his job very well.”
The test for the Canadians will be to not let Kesler, or others, get them agitated and goad them into retaliation penalties. Against the Czechs, Canada took too many penalties for coach Mike Babcock’s liking, though his special teams were excellent.
Brad Marchand, who has been playing on Canada’s top line with Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron, made his way into the NHL as a smallish pest, but has evolved into more than that now.
He had a breakthrough season last year offensively, and in order to solidify his place among the NHL’s high-end players, he had to learn to become smarter about his agitating role.
“That agitator-pest role is what got me in the league – it’s what I had to do to get here,” Marchand said. “If you talk to my coaches and how I view it now, it’s about improving and being a better player. When I’m here, I’m not going to try to be a pest. I’m going to support Bergy and Sid and do whatever I’m asked to play my role.”
Marchand’s Bruins and Kesler’s Canucks played a pitched seven-game battle in the 2011 Stanley Cup final, Boston ultimately winning the championship. Those are the sorts of series in which players develop a grudging admiration for each other – and can sometimes even learn from them.
Marchand describes Kesler as “a big guy who plays a hard game. He’s more of a shutdown guy and he’s really good at that role.
“You can say he’s a villain, but he’s the kind of guy you’d like to have on your team, and he’s the kind of guy you don’t like to play against. But we’ve got a few guys like that too.”
When Marchand was named to the Canadian roster, the hope was that he wouldn’t be lured into taking unnecessary penalties. Proof of his maturity came in the opener, a three-point performance in which he and his linemates played smart, disciplined hockey.
“I’ve always found that when you deliberately set out to play a certain way and be an agitator and pest, you kind of lose sight of playing the game,” Marchand said. “I’ve done that a couple of times in playoffs – got away from playing the game – and it affects your play. I’ve learned that if you focus on playing the game and playing well, that’s what frustrates teams and that’s what makes them take penalties on you.
“And that’s where I’m trying to push my game.”Report Typo/Error