I just finished writing a CSTV.com column on Phil Kessel's decision to sign with the Boston Bruins, which should be up later on this evening, so keep checking the CSTV.com hockey page. In preparing to write that column, I was part of a media conference call earlier this afternoon with both Kessel and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. There was one bit of that call that didn't make it into my column, but I'd like to share with you in this forum.
Apparently, Phil Kessel, the newest member of the Boston Bruins, is a New York Yankees fan.
One of the Boston reporters mentioned having seen Chiarelli at the Red Sox game last night, and asked if negotiations had been going on while Chiarelli was at Fenway Park. Chiarelli laughed the question off, mentioning that Phil was already asleep at that point, having had his wisdom teeth out recently (I can relate, by the way; I had my wisdom teeth out during my junior year of college, and it took a tape of Dartmouth's 7-2 win over then-No. 1 Harvard in the 2003 ECAC women's championship game to dull the pain).
After confirming that no negotiations had taken place during the ballgame, Chiarelli went on to mention that Kessel is a Yankees fan, and added, "We're going to have to convert him." Chiarelli then apologized to Phil, saying, "Sorry, Phil, I let the cat out of the bag," to which Kessel responded, "Yeah, wonderful."
Now, let me take this opportunity to say that although I've lived most of my life in New York, I am not, nor have I ever been, a Yankees fan (I figure that with the amount of time I spend in Boston, I'd better be crystal clear about that). However, I'm glad Kessel is. It means that there's a good chance that he's observed the saga of Alex Rodriguez, with whom Kessel has more in common than he might imagine.
Yes, there's a cute comparison here: each was thought to be going to a team that dresses in red, but instead wound up with that team's archrival, considered by many fans to be an "Evil Empire," only to be sitting at home when that red-clad team won a historic championship.
However, that's not what I mean.
In watching Rodriguez struggle this season - with the media and fans more than on the field - I get the sense that Rodriguez didn't exactly know what he was getting into when he signed the contract that made him the highest-paid player in baseball, or when he was party to the extended saga between the 2003 and 2004 seasons that brought him to.the Yankees. I can't help but think that he didn't understand the level of scrutiny and criticism that would come his way, particularly in New York, where greatness has been expected of him. Maybe he should have, but he didn't.
Phil Kessel strikes me the same way. When I spoke to him last week in Lake Placid, at USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp, he spoke very softly, and looked down at the ground a lot. Now, I know that Kessel isn't exactly the loudest, most talkative guy in the world, but there was a marked change from when I spoke to him at the same camp in 2005. He had the look of a guy who really wasn't having a whole lot of fun.
Over the past couple of years, Phil Kessel has done some things that have resulted in a great deal of scrutiny and criticism: his lengthy decision-making process before making his college choice, the choice to spurn his hometown Badgers in favor of the rival Golden Gophers, and this most recent saga, which included talk of going back to Minnesota "if I have to," and his statement that he never dreamed about playing college hockey. He's had some help, too, with things like his father's comments to the Minnesota Daily that Phil wouldn't sign to go play in the AHL. Along the way, he's become a favorite whipping boy for fans at other WCHA schools, and after Wisconsin won the NCAA title in April, there were more than a few Badger fans who took the opportunity to rub it in about Kessel's choice to go to Minnesota (we all know what happened to them in the tournament).
Somehow, I don't think that Kessel knew what he was getting into. Like A-Rod, maybe he should have known, but I don't think he did.
Now, I don't speak with any great authority when it comes to the inner thoughts of Phil Kessel. Over the past two years, I've had exactly two conversations with him in person, and have asked him three questions as a part of media conference calls. However, these are my impressions of him, and they've been backed up to some degreee by comments that he's made.
Now, he's beginning his career as a professional, and to be honest, I'm a bit concerned.
The Bruins are a franchise looking for their star of the future. Kessel has been hailed as the best U.S.-born player since either Mike Modano or Pat Lafontaine, depending on whom you talk to. Put it together, and there are going to be some huge expectations for him in Boston, which he may not yet be ready to live up to. If he isn't, it could get A-Rod-level ugly for him, and one thing that Phil has been perfectly clear about is that he doesn't really enjoy the level of media attention that he gets.
Now, that attention has the potential to get much, much worse.
For his sake, I hope it doesn't. Despite his involvement in one of my more embarassing professional moments (and yes, I do remember how some fans responded to my streaming audio interview with him last summer), I have absolutely no ill will towards Phil Kessel, and I wish him all the best.
I just hope that he really is ready.
Good luck, Phil.