Without knowing the significance of the date, Nov. 3, 2009, was a big day for Phil Kessel. He had recently turned 22 and was set to take the ice for the first time since recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. He was also set to make his highly anticipated debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs following his famous trade from the Boston Bruins two months prior.
Kessel was held pointless in almost 24 minutes of action that night in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but that’s not what anyone cares about nearly 13 years later. Instead, it marked the first game of what is now 989 consecutive games played for the veteran winger. Now 35, Kessel tied Keith Yandle’s iron man streak against his former Maple Leafs’ team on Monday night – and nearly scored his elusive 400th career goal – and is set to take sole possession of the record tonight against the San Jose Sharks.
Tributes to Kessel are rolling in, celebrating his longevity, Hall-of-Fame talent, and endearing ‘every man’ qualities. Here, we’ll focus on what the 17-year veteran has had to endure to reach this point. In such a physically demanding sport, 989 straight games don’t come easy.
Kessel’s Cancer Battle
It’s inspiring that Kessel survived testicular cancer before becoming the NHL’s leading “iron man.” His battle with cancer began in his rookie season, three years before his streak started, but shows his resilience and strength.
Somehow, his diagnosis and recovery from surgery in Dec. 2006 only cost Kessel 11 games. For that, he won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, becoming the first NHL rookie to receive the award.
Kessel Bounces Back the Next Day
Since the beginning of the streak, Kessel has often had to play through some pain to stay in the lineup. In December of 2013, a rash of injuries hit the Maple Leafs and even he wasn’t immune.
Kessel left practice with what was described as a “tweak” of a body part by then-head coach Randy Carlyle, leaving his status for the following night’s game against the Dallas Stars in jeopardy. Toronto was already missing Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, and Colton Orr, with Nazem Kadri (bereavement) and Cody Franson (lower-body injury) having just returned from the sidelines. Not only did Kessel suit up against the Stars, but he tallied two assists in a 3-2 overtime victory.
Kessel Keeps Pushing Through
Nearly a year later, word was getting around the Maple Leafs’ organization that Kessel was suffering from a host of nagging injuries. By this time, his consecutive games streak was approaching 400, which was notable enough to factor into the decision whether or not he should play.
In hindsight, it’s remarkable that this didn’t mark the end of the streak. For the floundering Maple Leafs, there was little reason to trot out an injured veteran star in a lost season with lottery odds to consider (they landed the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and selected Mitch Marner). For Kessel, was it really worth putting his body on the line each night for a seventh-place finish in the Atlantic Division?
The answer to that question was, apparently, yes. In spite of reported injuries to his back, hand, and/or wrist, Kessel again slogged through all 82 games before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins the following summer. It’s hard to know the extent of his injuries, but the fact that he recorded just 25 goals after scoring 37 in each of his previous two full seasons (he had 20 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) suggests a player who wasn’t entirely healthy.
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No Camp, No Problem for Kessel
A foot injury meant Kessel was less than fully ready heading into the 2021-22 season with the Arizona Coyotes. He missed all of training camp, but with a streak that surpassed 900 games, it had taken on too much significance to remain sidelined once the regular season began.
So, there he was on opening night, toughing it out and hiding whatever pain he might have felt. Of course, we can’t rule out that this was a plot to skip camp and check back in once the regular season got underway.
As we all know, no one gets out of this sport without it taking its toll, certainly not NHL veterans. This is what makes Kessel’s milestone so remarkable – for all the physical punishment he endures on a nightly basis, he has made himself available for every game for nearly nine years. Now that he has officially played more games in a row than anyone else in league history, maybe we can finally drop that “lazy” label that has somehow stayed with him.
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I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.