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Zero goals. No assists. Plus/minus of -3. Those are not the stats any hockey player hopes to have on his game splits, especially when he’s returning to his former team’s rink.
Unfortunately for Phil Kessel, that was his exact scoring line when he played against the Boston Bruins for the first time since being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs during the preseason training camp. As the exaggerated chants of “Kes-sel, Kes-sel” poured down on him, the Bruins poured on the goals, easily winning 7-2.
For many Bruins fans, this single game was proof that the trade was the right move by general manager Peter Chiarelli: the “locker-room cancer” that was Phil Kessel, the self-entitled starlet that refused to play defense, the weakling that was afraid to get hit and didn’t play when he had mono had finally been shipped out of town, with the best part of it all being Toronto’s league-worst 1-7-4 start. If you believe Chiarelli in the he-said/he-said media war, then it was Kessel who refused to negotiate with the Bruins and said he wanted out, while Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke “painted [the Bruins organization] into a corner” with his threats of an offer sheet.
There is only one theoretical question to ask these people who are thrilled that Kessel no longer wears the spoked-B: Would you stay at a job where you don’t get along with your boss because you like to use a Mac, but he forces everyone to use Windows? Okay, maybe you would, perhaps out of loyalty for hiring you straight out of college, or maybe because you think you have a good chance at winning the Nobel Prize there.
Now, what if you could use your Mac as much as you wanted, work for one of the top bosses in the country, be managed by a recent Nobel Prize winner, all while getting paid fair-market value for your time and talent, which is especially important to you since you recently overcame testicular cancer and are concerned about your ability to work in the future? You’d be crazy not to take it. So, why are you booing Kessel? The odds on you booing the epitome of Boston sports cancers, Manny Ramirez, when he returns to Fenway are slim to none. Oh, but he won a few World Series titles in Boston, didn’t he? So, if Kessel had won a Stanley Cup, you’d be thanking him for ending Boston’s longest current championship drought?
He must have not done his part to win, then. However, he did just that. In Kessel’s first season, 2006-2007, he scored 11 goals and 18 assists, despite missing 11 games because of testicular cancer. The Bruins failed to make the playoffs that year, but 2007-2008 was a different story: Kessel went for 37 points (19-18-37) and the Bruins slipped into the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. In the opening round against the Montréal Canadiens, Kessel received his now infamous benching, but still led the team in goals scored, despite playing in three fewer games than everyone else. (He also averaged a point per game and had the second-highest shot percentage on the team.)
In 2008-2009, everyone knew big thing were bound to happen and they did. The Bruins, behind Kessel’s team-leading 36 goals, finished in first place in the Eastern Conference, before bowing out to a much weaker Carolina Hurricanes team in the second round. There was little Kessel’s (once again) team-leading six goals could do about that. He probably didn’t play much defense, then, right? His +23 plus/minus rating (sixth on the team) for the season and +7 for the playoffs say otherwise.
There’s absolutely no reason for the booing or for any inkling of hatred towards the former first-round pick. Perhaps you’re resentful because you thought he wouldn’t score much because he wouldn’t have Marc Savard to pass the puck to him, but proved you wrong by notching ten goals and six assists in seventeen games, a span during which the Maple Leafs have gone 8-6-3? Don’t be.
First of all, if he had stayed in Boston, he wouldn’t have had Savard to pass the puck to him because of Savard’s injury. Secondly, and more importantly, there was no way Kessel was going to stay in Boston as long as Claude Julien remained the head coach. While Kessel prefers to run around on offense, Julien values the defense-first, grit-wins-championships system, which has worked fairly well on the ice in Boston and even better amongst the fans. Chiarelli realized this and made his choice. He – and the rest of Boston – won’t know if he made the right one until this season ends and the draft picks received in compensation for Kessel (1st and 2nd rounds in 2010, 1st round in 2011) mature, but things are looking promising for both parties.
Therefore, when Phil makes his second return to the TD Garden on Thursday night, don’t boo him. Just accept that he’s a great player who is destined to do great things with the Toronto Maple Leafs and that it’s no one’s fault he’s gone. In fact, it’s probably best, especially considering the salary cap obligations of the Bruins in the future (thank you, Tim Thomas). The bad blood is simply the result of Chiarelli’s victory in the media war. Since when do Boston fans actually like Chiarelli and the Bruins front office (save for Cam Neely)? You don’t have to clap for the kid or cheer him on; just don’t boo him. He deserves better and that’s something you are.
Stay classy, Bruins fans.