How Ironman Phil Kessel earned, and deserves, folk hero status
Phil Kessel is set to be the NHL's ironman with a streak of 990 consecutive games played. Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP.

Phil Kessel’s consecutive games streak stretches back so far its origin now feels as distant as a childhood memory.

"I don’t even remember, eh? Like I couldn’t even tell you when it was," Kessel told AT&T Sportsnet in an interview.

The first of what will become 990 straight games when the NHL’s unlikely Ironman takes a shift in San Jose on Tuesday night was played on a forgotten Tuesday night in Toronto.

Beginning of Phil Kessel's ironman streak

That was Kessel’s debut with the Maple Leafs following an offseason trade from Boston that defined so much of how the first half of his career was discussed and debated, and it saw him rip 10 shots on Tampa Bay goalie Antero Niittymaki in an overtime loss.

He was somehow kept off the scoresheet that game. And there was no way to know then what was to come.

The qualities that have since turned Kessel into a folk hero were already apparent as he started a stretch of 13 years of hockey at its highest level without missing a game.

Get Chris Johnston's Inside the NHL newsletter delivered to your inbox every Monday: Subscribe today

For starters, the man was always unapologetically himself. And there was no questioning his love of the sport even when it was apparent that he didn’t appreciate every aspect of doing it for a living under an intense and often unreasonable microscope.

The 446 games spent in Toronto were so turbulent that Kessel could make a case to have them retroactively credited at a higher number. They weren’t easy. Each of those six seasons passed like a dog year.

I covered a significant number of those games while working for The Canadian Press and Sportsnet, and it’s uncomfortable now to look back on the way Kessel was chronicled at that time. Make no mistake: The Maple Leafs teams of that era had all kinds of issues, but rarely at any given moment should their most productive player by a mile have been considered anywhere near the top-10 list of problems on any subjective list of them.

Except that’s not really how the narrative often went.

The real Kessel

Kessel famously avoided playing the media game, which no doubt drove some of the dissent. It made him an easy target when there was blame to be assigned during a time in sports media when the loudest voices carried even more weight than they do today.

And it unfairly left him too often picked apart for what he wasn’t rather than being celebrated for what he was — the ninth-best per-game goal-scorer and eighth-best per-game point producer among those to ever play at least 400 games for the franchise.

The truth about dealing with Kessel was that he was rarely boring.

Kessel had some big years with the Leafs that were overshadowed by the team's poor play. Photo by Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

The best place to get a candid thought from him was usually on his walk to the bus in a visiting arena because that guaranteed a swarm of cameras wouldn’t descend on the conversation immediately after it started.

Depending on the day, he could be funny, biting or frustrated.

The most comfortable I ever saw him — and by far the longest we ever spoke — was at the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in Washington during the summer of 2013. After covering all of the expected topics in an interview, he stayed around while the notebook went away and we discussed everything from his golf game to his favourite restaurants to why he loved living in Toronto so much.

It was natural to walk away from that experience wondering why he didn’t show that side of himself more often.

But with the passing of time, which included plenty more dealings while covering Kessel’s back-to-back Stanley Cup victories with Pittsburgh, the most likely answer emerged as the most obvious one: Phil is simply Phil.

He is not easily placed in any box.

The same guy teammates have been labelling a freakish athlete for going on two decades has been known to drink Coca-Cola and give a half-hearted effort in the occasional practice.

Heck, the same guy who so actively tried to avoid the spotlight in Toronto chose to bring the Stanley Cup to the city for one of his days with the trophy and filled it with hotdogs and posed for a legendary photo during the other one.

Phil Kessel's ironman streak no surprise

Kessel may once have seemed like a long shot to climb past Patrick Marleau, Doug Jarvis and finally Keith Yandle on the NHL’s consecutive games played list, but the more you think about it the more sense it makes.

He showed a lot of mettle during that topsy-turvy Leafs tenure. He soldiered through. And he played well enough for long enough after it ended to render virtually all of the hot takes from that era as laughably wrong.

"It seemed like he didn’t care [when we were young] and it still kind of seems like he’s nonchalant, but inside he competes and cares," Ryan Suter once said of Kessel.

After the Cups and after all those goals (his next will be No. 400) and after establishing an Ironman streak that may never be touched, his play has said a lot more than he ever had to.

NorthStar Bets editorial Insiders have no influence, direct or otherwise, over the setting of odds advertised on our platforms.