The Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, known as one of the least loquacious players in the NHL, was a bona-fide chatterbox the other day in Toronto.
He ripped on Dion Phaneuf for losing to him in a race. He had an animated chat with Maple Leafs assistant coach Scott Gordon. As Kessel left the ice, he stopped to sign a jersey for a teen near the tunnel. He then paused to talk with a grade-school boy standing near the dressing room.
When the room opened for interviews, that’s when the other side of Kessel was evident. He was long gone, a pair of dangling skates the only sign he’d even been there.
“He’s not quiet around us,” Leafs linemate James van Riemsdyk said. “Maybe outwardly to you guys he is, but he’s a fun guy to be around. He’s a character and a piece of work, to say the least.”
Kessel is wary of letting outsiders get to know him. Heck, he’s wary of letting anyone know anything.
Kessel has been friends with fellow Michigan native Nathan Gerbe for years. Back in 2008 when the two participated in a USA Hockey training camp in Portland, Maine, I asked Kessel a few questions for a feature about Gerbe, then the Sabres’ hottest prospect as a Boston College star. Four-word summarizations like “he’s a good guy” never made the story.
As much as Kessel likes to keep to himself in public, he’s not going to have much of a choice soon. He’s going to be one of the biggest stars of the Olympics.
The right winger is a lock to be named to the U.S. team Wednesday. It’ll only be the beginning. His speed and scoring touch have made him an NHL All-Star. Those traits will be even more evident on the ice surface in Russia, which is 15 feet wider.
“Phil’s dangerous on the small ice,” said Toronto defenseman John-Michael Liles, who represented the United States in the 2006 Games. “Get him on the big ice where there’s a little bit more room with how fast he is and how much he can accelerate, he’ll be extremely effective.”
Leafs newcomer David Clarkson likens Kessel to former Devils teammate Ilya Kovalchuk.
“When they’re on the ice they do something special,” Clarkson said. “You see Phil wind up behind the net on the power play and take the puck down the wing, just the speed he has and the poise with the puck, it’s impressive to watch him out there. It’s something a lot of guys can’t do.”
It’s hard for Sabres fans to root for members of the Leafs, especially a guy at the center of the preseason brawl between the teams. But they should leave a soft spot for Kessel. He’ll make them proud to be Americans. He’s proud to be one.
Kessel spent two years playing in the U.S. National Team Development Program and has represented his country at the world juniors, world championships and Olympics. He had one goal and one assist in six games in 2010, but he was just a young guy getting 11:45 of ice time.
He’s in his prime now and will be an Olympic star.
“I’m sure he’s going to be a huge factor in the tournament,” said van Riemsdyk, who will also make the U.S. squad. “You have a little bit extra room to operate and make a play and to skate in. That’s the key. If you can’t skate with the 15 feet extra of ice, you’re basically ineffective out there. When you have that game-breaking speed that he has, it’s a huge advantage.”
Besides being ex-Sabres, what do Miroslav Satan, Maxim Afinogenov and Milan Bartovic have in common? They’re All-Stars.
Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League added the three to its midseason classic after they were left out by fans and journalists. Satan and Bartovic play for Slovakian host Bratislava, while Afinogenov skates for Russian club Vityaz Chekchov.
The 39-year-old Satan announced this will be his final season. He has played six games and scored twice in his homeland send-off. Afinogenov, 34, leads his team with nine goals and 19 points in 38 games.
Other former NHLers selected for the Jan. 11 game include Kovalchuk, Marcel Hossa, Jonathan Cheechoo, Sandis Ozolinsh and Brandon Bochenski.
Carter’s knee hurt on punch
The punch of the year so far belongs to the Sabres’ Marcus Foligno, who dropped Ryan Carter with a crushing overhand right. It was memorable because Foligno gently cradled the Devils forward as he crumpled along the boards.
Carter hasn’t played since the Nov. 30 game. Head trauma was thought to be the reason, but Carter says that’s not the case.
“You could’ve asked people before I ate that knuckle sandwich and they’d say I have head problems,” Carter said. “How did I get hurt? Falling down. I cut my lip, obviously, but that was fine the next day. As I fell, I hurt my knee.
“If you watch the video you can see I have a hard time putting weight on my leg. A lot of people thought maybe it was my head because I had to use the wall.”
On the fly
• Thomas Vanek and the Minnesota Wild become a more perfect fit by the day. The Wild have slipped to 29th in the NHL in goals at 2.18 per game. Only the Sabres (1.71) are worse. Vanek had nine goals and 17 points in his first 22 games with the Islanders.
• Just three of the six outdoor games have sold out, and the league has slashed prices on the Southern California experiment in Dodger Stadium. The NHL oversaturated the market and charged too much, which is obviously a bad combination.
• The Sabres took a flyer on Linus Omark, so it’ll be interesting to see if their Oilers connection with new scout Kevin Prendergast lands them a more established player. Center Sam Gagner might not fit with Edmonton much longer.
• Jaromir Jagr still has secrets after more than two decades of playing. The 41-year-old revealed he wears two pairs of socks during games but none during practices. “Strange, huh?” Jagr said. “I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t want to feel good in practice. I want to feel bad so the game is mentally helping me.”