Phil Kessel Doesn’t Need A Lesson In Media Relations

Last Tuesday, a Globe and Mail sports writer published this article. Of course, being a Leafs fan, I clicked the link, initially thinking that it might be a humorous take on the recent Phil Kessel comments. It was pretty clear, after the first paragraph or two, that this definitely wasn’t the case and that Globe writer Cathal Kelly had obviously found an opportunity to voice something that had been bothering him for some time.

Phil Kessel
(Icon SMI)

The article immediately got off to an unexpected start. Where I had been expecting a bit of humour and tongue-firmly-implanted-in-cheek ‘tips’, I got a weird fable-esque story about Frank Thomas coming to Toronto on an inflated salary at the tail end of his career (seems to be a theme for Toronto sports teams) to play for the Blue Jays. The point? Frank Thomas didn’t play very well in Toronto, but he was cordial and nice so he didn’t get torn apart by the media. Gee. Isn’t that nice.

Phil Kessel is an interesting case study in media relations. He certainly doesn’t covet attention like some might (see Jeremy Roenick or Chris Pronger). Kessel was quiet in Toronto as Kelly’s colleague, James Mirtle, wrote in 2011. At the time Kessel was taking a lot of flak for never talking to the media in a town where the media attention is constant and unrelenting.  He just seemed to be a mix of shy and uninterested. For that, I can’t blame him. Hockey interviews, in general, tend to be boring and useless. It’s seldom that anything of substance is said.

Kelly’s article was obviously a condemnation of the way he feels that himself and his colleagues are treated by hockey players.

As media, we are locker-room background – as animate as grease boards and laundry hampers. You can’t remember what you haven’t really seen in the first place.

And this feeling has obviously been brewing for a while.

There are players I’ve covered for years, talked to many times about all sorts of things. I think I know them, at least a little. Then one day, we’ll walk past each other in the street, our eyes meet and they don’t recognize me. Not at all.

I can see why that’d be frustrating. That same event happens to people all the time. We met someone at a party and we see them on the street and they blow past us. Star athlete or not, it’s a reasonably common occurrence.

Kelly goes on to describe a scenario where the player and reporter have a positive moment/conversation/interaction and cross a ‘bridge’ (let’s call it the ‘friendship bridge’ – I envision it being brightly coloured with doves sitting on the rails). And then the dynamic changes ‘forever’.

Once that’s happened, you’ll never rip that guy in print. You’ll criticize, but the ripping days are over. He’s not just someone you cover any more. He’s someone you know.

So all Phil Kessel has to do is be nice to everyone, not speak his mind, learn some names, make eye contact, and then, he too, could cross the ‘friendship bridge’. And he’d never get ‘ripped’ again. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

To me, this article reeks of Kelly wanting to be one the cool kids, and just not being up to snuff. Maybe he got picked last on his intramural hockey team. Maybe he really likes Kessel but Kessel doesn’t want to hang out with him and play video games.


Dion Phaneuf (Icon SMI)
Dion Phaneuf (Icon SMI)

It’s also worth noting, that this ‘outburst’ by Kessel was in defense of a teammate. I am, in no way, a Dion Phaneuf fan, but as the Leafs’ captain and a highly paid player, he takes a lot abuse. When this abuse delved into his personal life, Kessel felt that it was his job to say something. I think, if anything, this is commendable. On a Leafs team that has looked fairly apathetic all year, this showed some courage and cohesion.


Whatever the reason for this article, be it some empty space to fill, or a deep-seeded bone to pick with professional athletes in general, it all feels like some sort of weird blackmail. The idea is clear: be nice to the media, or they’ll publicly tear you apart, whether you deserve it or not.  The problem is, Phil Kessel wanted to mind his own business. He didn’t want to give media interviews, but he got chastised for that. Then when he did speak his mind (to stand up for a teammate!), he got torn apart. So it seems the media wants Kessel to talk, they just don’t want to hear what he says. Maybe it’d be better if he just gave the standard hockey interview where a lot of words come out but nothing gets said. Maybe then he could cross the ‘friendship bridge’ wouldn’t get ‘ripped’ ever again.


Thanks for reading. Please comment and I’ll do my best to reply.



3 thoughts on “Phil Kessel Doesn’t Need A Lesson In Media Relations”

  1. I stand on the complete opposite side of the fence regarding the media and Kessel. For all the flak that the media takes in Toronto (especially when covering the Leafs), they don’t pose questions any differently in tone or substance than any other market in the NHL. Some people squarely point the finger at the media for the Leafs’ troubles, but it’s only an excuse. I’ve been living in Edmonton for a few years now and I can say confidently that with all the b.s. that Oiler fans have been dragged through regarding the endless rebuild and poor management, the media out here has been supremely professional in their treatment of the players and organization.
    Look at what has recently happened in Chicago with Patrick Sharp. Persistent “rumours” have continued for some time speculating (quite foolishly from the sounds of it), that Sharp has been a problem in the dressing room for the team. Toews and Seabrook publicly stated that this isn’t the case at all and Sharp has apparently decided to take legal matters to curb the rumours as some members of his family have become upset. It’s probably safe to say that Chicago is a pretty significant hockey market and that Blackhawk players are under considerable pressure and spotlight. The Blackhawks just happen to have excellent leadership and professionals the likes of Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Hossa, Richards, etc, etc. The Leafs don’t have this kind of character. Not even close.

    Kessel absolutely needs some PR lessons. He actually needs some common sense and a good dose of maturity as well. He may not enjoy speaking to the media, but it’s defined in NHL contracts that they make themselves available for questions and comments. Instead, he’s taken the, “I don’t like doing it, so I don’t” approach. How juvenile. This is PROFESSIONAL sports – players are expected to dress appropriately, keep in shape, compete and make themselves available to the public. It’s also part of being an adult.

    I get that being asked “stupid” questions and having to atone for lackluster efforts can be annoying, but it’s not like the fans can ask a player or team why they’ve been sandbagging games every night. I don’t agree with throwing jerseys on the ice, but consider fans who paid for them from seasons before, pay money to see live games and then see Kessel skating around aimlessly, uninterested and unmotivated. And then he refuses to speak to the media. Essentially, he doesn’t want to try and selfishly won’t make himself available to answer for it. All the while, his salary is paid for by the fans. How exactly can fans voice their displeasure so the players and organization actually SEE IT, other than resorting to what some fans have been doing?

    I can’t believe that some people still defend this guy. His blowup at reporters last week made absolutely no sense either. I have yet to see an unfair, critical article written by the Toronto media about Phaneuf. Most I’ve read have sympathized with him, being miscast and crucified by so many fans based on his contract that was offered by management. Nonis didn’t have to make the extension. Kessel really should wake up and start behaving as an adult. He certainly isn’t the only one responsible for the Leafs’ woes this season, but he’s definitely a big part of the problem. At the end of the day, the media doesn’t play the game, nor do they assemble the team. Coddling Kessel for his entire tenure in Toronto has only encouraged his shitty attitude and people who blame the media need to start pointing fingers at those truly responsible.

  2. Adam, thanks for writing this. The sports media are a power unto themselves in this city and the players and fans all suffer for it. They are a big part of why Toronto is in the bottom five of NHL cities free agents would choose to come to. The headline I would use to describe the catastrophic year the Leafs have had over the course of this season would be “Year of the Media”.

    • My pleasure. The media has a ridiculous amount of un-checked power. Like I said, I think it was impressive and courageous for Kessel to speak out against them to defend a teammate.

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