THE WORD from the coach had come by phone that April afternoon, one of those this-is-gonna-hurt-me-as-much-as-it-hurts-you-but-you'll-thank-me-in-the-long-run calls that informed Phil Kessel that he was being scratched for that night's playoff game. He was thunderstruck. Kessel had played all 82 regular-season matches for the Boston Bruins in 2007--08 and had assisted on their only goal in a loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of their first-round series. Now Claude Julien was telling him to grab a seat in the press box?
The most heralded young player in U.S. hockey history—a kid who, as a 16-year-old, was basically Sidney Crosby without the metric system—had been told, at least tacitly, that he was not courageous enough for the playoffs. Wearing a charcoal suit instead of a white, black and gold number 81 that night, he silently seethed as he watched the Bruins take the ice for Game 2 in Montreal. When the first period was over, he rose, walked up one flight of stairs, down another and then did the only thing a sensible person could do under the circumstances: He waited in line for one of those fabulous steamed hot dogs in the Bell Centre press room. Julien had been frank; Kessel had eaten a frank.
Kessel might have been a master of flamboyant, one-on-one hockey, but he was not a Reggie Jackson type whom no amount of mustard could cover—despite an ego underscored by an oft-told tale from his one season at the University of Minnesota that, out of context, made it seem as if he were less concerned with The U, as Minnesotans call it, than The I. The story: When Wayne Gretzky, in the Twin Cities with the Coyotes, stopped off at a practice to watch Blake Wheeler, a Phoenix first-round draft pick then playing for the Gophers, a Minnesota assistant coach told the players, "The greatest hockey player who ever lived is watching practice, so be good today." Then the coach turned to the prized freshman. "Phil," he said, "there's a guy here who's even better than you are."
"Doesn't it seem like you've been hearing about Phil forever?" says Wheeler, now Kessel's Bruins teammate. "It's almost like Freddy Adu, the soccer player. You can't believe they're [still young]."
A personage before he was fully a person, Kessel, who turned 21 last month, had been through so much. He had lived away from his Wisconsin home since the age of 15, after scoring 444 points in 157 midget and bantam games. He had traveled extensively, chasing pucks all over Europe for Team USA. "In my whole high school career," says Kessel, who attended Pioneer High in Ann Arbor, Mich., for two years, and uses the word career as if high school were a job, "I went to one dance. I was always too busy."
Today he is in the final season of his first professional contract at a time when people his age are just thinking about checking out a campus job fair—although the past four years have not stinted on education. While at the Team USA national development program in Ann Arbor in 2003, Kessel lost the father of the family with which he lived, a close friend who died of a heart attack while Kessel was off playing in an under-17 tournament in Newfoundland. The once surefire No. 1 draft pick saw his stock slip after a disappointing 2005--06 season at Minnesota and fell to Boston as the fifth pick in '06. He also survived testicular cancer, diagnosed and surgically treated in December 2006 during a bumpy rookie year. Incredibly, Kessel missed only 11 games. "I had to come back," says Kessel. "What else do you have in your life? I mean, I have friends and family, but it's not the same. You want it so bad you'll do whatever you can to get back."
And after a sophomore NHL season in which Kessel had gone -6, worst among Bruins forwards, Julien had taken hockey away from him again, believing the only way the Bruins could match Montreal's superior talent was with gumption. Kessel sat and stewed for three games as Boston fell behind three games to one. Then Julien reinserted Kessel into the lineup for Game 5 and witnessed what the coach is convinced was a hockey epiphany. Kessel scored the first Bruins goal in a Boston rout. In Game 6 he scored twice, including a move in which he backed off Francis Bouillon with his Talladega speed, deked right, shoved the puck through the defenseman's legs, retrieved it and scored. Although Boston would lose Game 7, Kessel was the most compelling player on the ice once he rejoined the series. This season he has a team-high seven goals as he skates the right wing with brio and nerve alongside Marc Savard and Milan Lucic on one of the Eastern Conference's top lines.
Over burgers in Boston last week, Kessel chafed at the notion that three games in civvies can change a player or a man. The stubbornness is more charming than alarming; Kessel would not be in the NHL if he lacked self-belief. But as he picked at his plate, skating concentric circles around the topic, he started and stopped as he does along the boards. "I don't think it changes the way you play hockey," he said. "Obviously you might try harder.... Well, I don't know, you always try your hardest, but.... It's a slap in the face and you want to show people it shouldn't have happened." He paused. "Maybe you find something else when something like that happens. You find something different in you that you've had but you've never tapped into."
IN A game against Dallas earlier this month Kessel took a Savard pass and scooted in past the blue line on Stars defenseman Mark Fistric, carrying the puck to the outside—he is a right-handed shot—at a distance from Fistric that would almost qualify as respectful. This is Kessel's signature, his hockey DNA. He will dangle the puck, coax a defenseman to shift his weight to the outside, then yank it inside and storm past the off-balance blueliner, a move that turned three pimply Swedes into pretzels in Kessel's hat-trick performance in the 2005 World Junior Championships. Fistric leaned, Kessel reeled in the puck, but instead of surging to the net, he used Fistric as a screen, whipping a shot through Stars goalie Marty Turco's pads from 35 feet. There are perhaps 15 players ( Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic to name two) whose releases are so quick and whose wrist shots are so muscular that they can regularly score on them from a distance. While the Bruins universally mention Kessel's maturity this season—"He's come in with a great attitude, wanting to be a difference maker," Julien says—the goal against Dallas persuasively announced that Kessel is not a one-trick pony but a young thoroughbred.
"I'm shooting more to score than I did the past two years," he says. "I'm firing the puck harder, getting back to how I used to think about the game.... Third year in the league, I guess you learn more about yourself. Life changes so quick. That's what I've learned the most. Any given day, any second"—he snaps his fingers—"life can change."