There was a kind of collective yawn in Leafland when it came to the roster announcements around the World Hockey Championships this spring. Oh, we knew on the day the Leafs cleared out their lockers that Luke Schenn and Dion Phaneuf would make the trek across the ocean to play again for Canada. And it was no surprise that Nik Kulemin would represent Russia or that feisty Mikhal Grabovski (I almost wrote Gorbachev…) would don the Belarussian colors. It was also nice to see that hard-working Joey Crabb got the nod to play for Team U.S.A.
But once again, our most exciting player, Phil Kessel, declined to play for the American side, citing, as I recall, a lingering, nagging injury that had been bothering him through the tail-end of the NHL regular-season. (No one raised an eyebrow at the time. Is that because we don’t care about the American team, or because it’s Kessel and that's what we expect from him?
a year ago, reflecting on Kessel’s decision not to accept an invitation from his home country to play in the 2011 World Championships. I wondered if it was telling us something about him. Not that he was lazy or anything like that, but simply that he didn’t have the desire to play more hockey after another, yes, difficult season with the home side here in Toronto. Did it, though, as I wrote at the time, suggest that maybe, just maybe, he was lacking the passion that a young player should have to play for pride instead of money, to represent their country, to make a statement that they can be counted on by their peers and teammates (in this case, his hockey countrymen)- even if they are hurting and fatigued by a long NHL season?
I recall at the time that those who shared their views here did not seem to have any concerns at all. That is, they felt Kessel was a shy guy, someone who doesn’t like the limelight at all, and that after his season with the Leafs, he needed time to get away, relax, and get ready for the 2011-’12 NHL season.
Fair enough. Players have the right to make choices. They certainly don’t have to play for their country. Maybe we should not even expect them to. Maybe some of us have just been spoiled over the years by, in recent times, individuals like Shane Doan and Ryan Smyth—who never seemed to miss a chance to play for Canada whenever they were invited.
But I still think it’s a fair question to ask about Kessel. Oh, I know he was “hurt” at the end of this season. In the same breath, unless it was a very serious injury (and I seem to recall he was playing at the end of the regular-season) there was some recuperation time between when the Leafs finished their season and when Team U.S.A. had to gear up for the games in Finland. Here's another question: would Kessel have been healthy enough to suit up if the blue and white had been in the NHL playoffs? If so, does that mean anything?
Again, I’m not condemning—simply asking the question. Does it mean anything that Kessel has, to some degree, spurned opportunities to play in the spring when most competitive athletes—at least those without pressing family obligations, for example—jump at the chance? Again, does it tell us anything?
In fairness, Phil played for the U.S. in 2007 and 2008, and also during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver (in-season). He played in the World Juniors before that. Maybe he has “done his time” on the international side.
But I’m asking the question as it relates to what it means for Kessel and his place in Toronto, with our hockey club. Most of us have long agreed we don’t expect him to be a leader. We mostly want him to play hard, stay motivated and use his God-given talents.
It’s just that I watched Daniel Alfredsson drag his aging, injured body to play one more time for Sweden, after playing hurt in the NHL playoffs. We saw the same with Datsyuk, Zetterburg and others who played a grueling playoff series before welcoming the opportunity to play for their respective countries. There are many others who have done the same. (In fact, it was announced Sunday that Alex Ovechkin and...wait....the much-maligned likely UFA Alexander Semin are heading to Europe to play for their native Russia- a major risk for Semin, as an injury would likely impact a big free-agent pay day...)
I’m guessing Kessel’s absence doesn’t matter to you. But if you have some thoughts, let me know.