It was an hour before Game 7 in the 2017 second-round playoff series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, and Penguins players were assembled around the visiting locker room preparing for a tense game. Some guys were kicking around a soccer ball, others were stretching, some were zoning out listening to music through headphones.
Phil Kessel was sipping a coffee and talking to Rick Tocchet, then a Penguins assistant coach. Kessel noticed a chin-up bar.
“I bet you can’t do 12 chin-ups,” Kessel told Tocchet.
“Really?” said Tocchet, who was 53 but had played 18 seasons in the NHL.
“OK, what do you think? I’ll bet you 100 bucks,” Kessel said.
“Make it 200,” Tocchet said.
Kessel said fine. Tocchet took off his suit jacket as Kessel called for his teammates to come watch.
“I had 20 players around me,” Tocchet recalls. “They counted it off. I think I did 13 or 14. Phil looked at me and shook his head. He said, ‘All right, Ricky’ — he calls me Ricky — went into the locker room, grabbed 200 bucks and put it in my hand.
“The reason I like that story is because it shows who Phil is. It’s a pressure situation, and we had some young guys. But Phil kept the guys loose. He brought the guys together, in a funny light. And yeah, we went on to win the game. I don’t think it was because of that, but he knew the right time to get the guys loose.”
The Penguins won the Stanley Cup that spring, and Tocchet was subsequently hired as head coach of the Arizona Coyotes. Two years later, he was reunited with Kessel when the Coyotes traded for the star winger this summer. It’s an acquisition team president Ahron Cohen calls “among the biggest moves we’ve ever had as an organization.” Since 2008-09, Kessel ranks fifth among NHL players in goals (327) and eighth in points (757). The 31-year-old — known for his speed off the rush and being a lethal power-play threat — is an Olympian and two-time Stanley Cup champion.
In other words, he brings a winning pedigree to a young team on the cusp. The Coyotes — despite a rash of injuries and thanks to an impressive late-season push — just missed the playoffs last spring, extending their postseason drought to seven years.
“In Phil’s career so far, he’s put up some unreal numbers, won championships and made a lot of dough,” Tocchet said. “Now he’s coming to an organization that has been trying to find their way over the years. We’re trying to turn the corner. Phil comes in here, and if he can make this team better, just look at his legacy. It’s going to skyrocket.”
The Coyotes are hoping Kessel can boost their reputation, too. The winger’s $6.8 million-per-year contract runs through the next three seasons.
“Historically, people have said, ‘These guys aren’t really spending that much,'” Cohen said. “This offseason, thanks to new ownership coming in [Alex Meruelo assumed majority ownership in July], we had an opportunity to bring Phil in. We’re spending more money than we had previously. That sends a strong message to the fans.”
Immediately after Kessel signed, Cohen reported a 600% increase in season-ticket sales. “And it was right over July 4th week, which is usually a slow time for doing anything, especially here when it’s 120 degrees,” Cohen said. There were significant spikes in social media engagement and media hits. The team also began selling “Phil The Thrill” T-shirts, which Cohen said are “selling very well.”
Now available in The Den! pic.twitter.com/tlgBtDDgA5
— theCoyotesDen (@theCoyotesDen) July 20, 2019
As the NHL learns the importance of marketing its stars, bringing in a household name can do wonders — especially for a team in a nontraditional market still working to build a fan base. That means the Coyotes will be asking Kessel to be more forward-facing.
The only problem?
It’s not the pressure that will get to Kessel. After all, he was the fifth overall pick by Boston in 2006, and he has played for intense markets such as Toronto and Pittsburgh. He has been unflappable on the ice at every stage.
The issue is that Kessel — after years of getting burned by stories and becoming meme-worthy for NHL fans due to his unique personality — typically hates putting himself out there.
“Obviously, I think it comes with the territory,” Kessel said. “I’ll do what I have to do. I don’t mind it, but I don’t care to do it either.”
Kessel was traded to the Penguins from Toronto in 2015 because, as Tocchet said, “Pittsburgh wanted to change a little personality in the dressing room.” Getting along with teammates was never an issue.
“Phil marches to his own drum, but he has this way about him where anyone on the team really likes him,” Tocchet said. “That’s what I like about Phil. Phil being Phil, he doesn’t really realize it, but he can fit in to any dressing room. Sidney Crosby loves him. Kris Letang loves him. The young guys love him.”
Kessel would often complain to Tocchet that practices were too hard. It wasn’t because he actually thought they were too hard but because it would make his teammates laugh and get them loose.
Head coaches typically have a hard time reaching every player, so in Pittsburgh, the assistants split the roster. Jacques Martin had his guys. Sergei Gonchar talked to Evgeni Malkin a lot. Tocchet created a relationship with a few players, including Kessel.
Kessel said he was instantly drawn to Tocchet “because he’s a good person.”
“We like a lot of the same things in life,” Kessel said. “Golf, fishing, stuff like that.”
People noticed that Tocchet and Kessel were close, and soon the coach gained a nickname: “The Phil Whisperer.” Tocchet hated the nickname.
“Phil doesn’t need a whisperer,” Tocchet said. “He’s misunderstood. A lot of the stuff people say about him, 90 percent of it isn’t true.”
Tocchet pointed to the most infamous story attached to Kessel. After Kessel was traded to Pittsburgh, a Toronto Sun columnist wrote that the person who would miss the winger the most in Toronto was the hot dog vendor he allegedly visited daily.
“He won’t say it, but he doesn’t even like hot dogs,” Tocchet said. “Everybody talks about Phil and hot dogs. I don’t think he’s had even two hot dogs in his life. But for whatever reason, everyone thinks he likes hot dogs. He laughs about it. He doesn’t try to squash it. He just laughs at it.”
Asked why he doesn’t try to clear his name or show off his true personality, Kessel is flippant. “I don’t care,” he said. “People can write what they want. They don’t know me. Obviously only my close friends, who I share my inside life details with, they know me. They know me, and they know who I am. [Others] can think or write what they want.”
Still, it’s unrelenting. Kessel is the subject of a disproportionate amount of rumors and fascination. Just last week, a report by The Athletic said Malkin requested a trade if Kessel were to return to Pittsburgh’s roster this season. Both players have denied any rift.
“I’m pretty sure the media likes to make up a lot of B.S.,” Kessel said. “They always look for something to write about. It’s mostly negative rather than positive for most guys, so it is what it is. I don’t really care.”
The Phoenix market is filled with transplants and snowbirds, and that’s not news to the Coyotes. There are also plenty of hockey fans who attend Coyotes games because it’s a destination. “They want to see their Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins, and they’re going for a road trip to come see that,” Cohen said. “Quite frankly, all the Phoenix teams deal with that as well. The Cardinals played their home opener, and 50 percent of the fans in the stands were Detroit Lions fans.”
The Coyotes aspire for their arena to one day be filled with die-hard Coyotes fans. Said Cohen: “It’s tough to get some of the older people who have strong allegiances to their other teams — we’re hoping to, and we’re doing everything we can to turn them into Coyotes fans — but our focus is more on getting the next generation of fans.”
Cohen has seen plenty of studies that suggest millennials and Generation Z feel “more of a connection to individuals than teams or league,” as he put it. The Coyotes have made a concerted effort to show off their players’ personalities off the ice. The team puts out plenty of original video content, and it hired former player Paul Bissonette — who amassed more than a million followers with a humorous Twitter account — to the media team. Bissonette’s most popular segment is a web series called “Pillow Talk,” which is, well, exactly what it sounds like, featuring a rotating cast of Coyotes players.
“In terms of marketing Phil, that’s where I think it’s very important for us bringing in that marquee name that hockey fans — both casual and avid — do know,” Cohen said. “I think Phil knows what he means to this team and this community as well. We’re looking for good opportunities to showcase him and his personality. But I do know the best way to create excitement is winning games and getting people excited about this team.”
Tocchet said that in Pittsburgh, it was easier for Kessel to opt out.
“In Pittsburgh, he was allowed to blow off the media and take off because there’s enough people there to talk to,” Tocchet said. “Here, he’s probably going to take a big leadership chunk. He’ll have to do a couple more things for us. He knows. He embraces it.
“But saying that, too, I don’t want him out of his element. I don’t want him where he’s definitely having to talk to the media every day, where we’re parading him around like a showpiece, where there’s so much on his plate where he doesn’t have to worry about hockey.”
Kessel wasn’t acquired just to sell tickets. Leveling up is the best way to generate interest, and Kessel can help this young team get there. Kessel’s blasé attitude — especially as it is portrayed in the media — is actually one of his best on-ice assets. He’s not linemate-dependent, he’s not team-dependent, he doesn’t get fazed by situations. He just produces.
And he doesn’t seem fazed by any of the hype in Arizona. Asked if a team had ever created T-shirts for him like the “Phil The Thrill” ones the Coyotes put out, Kessel said, “I honestly don’t know. And I don’t know if you’ll see that many. It is what it is. I don’t really care either way.”