Criticism and Phil Kessel are as synonymous as tape and hockey sticks. And despite all the shots taken at number 81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s the shots he takes, on the ice, that continue to win over his naysayers.
Kessel, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, is turning heads at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He’s turning heads on the ice, blowing by defenders with that defining speed of his, and he’s turning heads off the ice, earning the admiration of his teammates, fans and media personnel who don’t cover him regularly in Toronto.
Patrick Kane calls Phil Kessel "probably the best guy I've ever played with. He's unbelievable."
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) February 17, 2014
Coming from Patrick Kane, a member of the 2010 and ’13 Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks – a team blessed with an absurd amount of top end talent over the last five years, that’s quite the compliment bestowed upon the Leafs camera shy sniper.
Praise for Kessel is running through America like the Mississippi river. Sports Illustrated recently published an ode to Phil and his sister, Amanda, who is also in Sochi, representing the American women’s hockey team. Phil’s younger sis is the spitting image of her brother on the ice; their form, the way they move and shoot the puck are clear indicators they share a common gene pool, one that produces elite hockey talent.
Amanda has done well at these Games, posting 6 points en route to the gold medal game against Team Canada. If Phil keeps scoring at his current clip there’s a very good chance he’ll become the second of the Kessel bloodline to compete for Olympic hockey gold over the next few days in Russia.
However, Amanda’s tournament is nearly done (women’s gold medal game is Thursday), and Phil’s is only beginning.
Kessel and his countrymen have not played an elimination game thus far in Sochi – the men’s tournament started after the women’s and will conclude this coming Sunday. In order to play for gold the American men need to win two games in a three day span, beginning with a quarter-finals matchup tomorrow against the winner of today’s qualifier between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Still a long way to go for Phil.
Opportunity knocks for number 81. His tournament leading 7 points are a fantastic accomplishment but they mean little if America bows out of the 2014 Olympic hockey tournament without a gold medal. As the pressure builds and the stakes are raised, Phil’s big moment could be a few sleeps away. If Phil’s scoring streak can continue into the elimination stage he can truly become a hockey hero all over America… even in Boston.
There is no “I” in “Team” but there is one in “Phil.” And aside from making his country rich with gold and teary eyed with pride there must be something inside of Phil Kessel that wants to experience ultimate victory in the sport he’s mastered. This is his big chance to be a big factor; the opportunity he missed when the Boston Bruins traded him one year prior to winning the Stanley Cup; the chance that eluded him when he watched from the bench while Sidney Crosby scored a golden strike to eliminate Team USA in the gold medal game four years ago in Vancouver.
Phil’s greatness in Sochi will not be determined by his first three games, it’s the next three that will define his Olympic hockey legacy.
Is Kessel a winner? It’s a question that has stalked him his entire career. Now is his chance to answer it.