NHL: The Curious Case of Booing Phil Kessel

(Credit: cbc.ca)

By: Rossy Pasternak

Last night, I had the chance to go to the Penguins vs. Leafs game in Toronto. It was a fun night, with a Shawn Mendes appearance, me trying to make my little cousin cheer for the Leafs instead of his favourite player Sidney Crosby, and the action on the ice wasn’t so bad either. The game reminded me of my young hockey fan days, where every game I went to, I learned something new about the Toronto crowd and the crazy Toronto hockey market. I used to love cheering, “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” whenever Ed Balfour made a save, the constant “Go Leafs Go” chants, or joining the crowd in unison telling Tomas Kaberle to “Shooooooooot!” on the powerplay. With my little cousin in sitting next to me, it made me think of the current Leafs, and the imprints both the crowd and the team will leave on him.

Last night also happened to be Phil Kessel’s 5th game against his former team, and my second game watching him return to the ACC. Again, a heavy chorus of boo’s rained down on Kessel whenever he touched the puck. Maybe the boo’s have gotten to him, considering he has been held pointless in his five games against his former team.

While others were booing, I was wondering why? Phil Kessel did everything he was asked to do in Toronto, and more. The Leafs traded Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton for him, but it isn’t Kessel’s fault that Brian Burke traded away the picks that would become two of the brightest young stars in hockey. Even though Kessel didn’t deliver on Burke’s promise of the “five-year plan”, he scored more than 40 goals in four of his six seasons as a Leaf. He also made the players around him better, turning Tyler Bozak from a college signing to, arguably, a serviceable first or second line centre. He allowed James Van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul reach new heights in their careers. He was generally well-liked in the dressing room, as seen in The Road to the Winter Classic in 2014. Many will cite Kessel’s departure from Toronto as a reason to boo, but Kessel didn’t demand a trade – he didn’t even want one! It was Brendan Shanahan and his “Shanaplan” that ushered the controversial winger out of Toronto.

It’s not only what he did on the ice that makes the booing of Kessel so dumbfoundingly stupid in my opinion. Kessel, contrary to the belief of the uneducated hockey fan, loved living in the mecca of the hockey world. Although he may have bristled at the constant search of a headline from the media, he has been open about his love for Toronto. He even took time out of his 24 hours with the Stanley Cup this past summer to bring it to Toronto – a city that hasn’t seen a Cup since 1967 – and visit Sick Kids Hospital with it, making the days of many children in need of an injection of happiness.

Kessel spent six of his prime years in Toronto, and gave the city something to cheer about on most nights. Although Kessel was torn apart by many media members and fans alike, he still produced at a superstar clip most seasons. And it is important to remember that the lofty expectations the Leafs fans held for those Kessel teams were due largely to the fact that he was on the team. I can’t fathom how bad the Leafs may have been without Kessel, who would constantly bail out the team with timely goals. The Leafs playoff-less streak would probably be sitting at 11 instead of 3 without him.

So, Leafs fans, why boo a player who has done nothing wrong to the city, to the franchise, or to any of you. Kessel was a superstar on the ice during his time in the 6ix, and was charitable and friendly off it for the most part. It isn’t his fault that we put expectations that even Connor McDavid couldn’t live up to on him and those teams. It isn’t his fault that Brian Burke mismanaged the salary cap and roster while he was in charge. It isn’t his fault that he played under two controversial, and in my opinion sub-par, coaches in Ron Wilson and Randy Carlyle, who tried to mold him into a player he isn’t year after year, instead of tailoring a gameplan to their superstar.

Last night was like deja vu for me, sitting in the same seats I sat in 10 years ago, cheering on Gary Roberts and Mats Sundin, and booing Daniel Alfredsson every time he touched the puck. For years after my first Leafs-Sens game, I hated Alfie with a passion. Every time the guy touched the puck, I would stand on my seat in the 20th row at centre ice, and scream as loud as I could along with the rest of the usually sold-out crowd. Sitting next to my cousin now, he being at the same age I was back then, I thought to myself: does Phil Kessel deserve to be hated at the same level as Alfie? Did he really do anything wrong?

The resounding answer was no.

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