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"You've got a kid and another on the way," Mike said. "What would they think of you if they saw you breaking your stick after you missed a breakaway?"
It was exactly what his son needed to hear. "That really put things into perspective for me," Ryan says, smiling. "You don't want your kids thinking you're a hothead or anything like that. You're supposed to be the mature one and set a good example.... So from then on out, I've been this positive person who doesn't get rattled. Even my friends see a change. And, uh, they like the new me." He chuckles.
Kesler wasn't laughing when he began the season without so much as an assist through the Canucks' first four games. Skating away from scrums became almost unbearable for a player who had grown accustomed to a life in the middle of them. "I knew it was part of my game that I had to let go," he says. "[But] it was definitely pretty hard to try this new thing when you're not having success."
When Kesler finally scored in the third period of the fifth game, a one-timer from the top of the left circle on a power play, "it felt like a thousand pounds lifted off my shoulders," he says. The goal itself was rather insignificant—the last in a 5--1 win over the Hurricanes—but it gave him confidence that his new approach wouldn't dilute his play.
Kesler now acknowledges that, if anything, reserving his focus and energy for his play between the whistles has probably strengthened his game. "As far as him playing with an edge, him playing with grit and being physical and feisty when he needs to be," Vigneault says, "that hasn't changed one iota."
It was always easy to spot Mike Kesler up in the stands. While the other dads were shouting instructions to their sons—things like Skate! and Shoot!—Mike was the one screaming Backcheck! In the Kesler household defense and hard work were non-negotiable. If Ryan didn't give his best effort, he knew what he'd be hearing on the long ride home. He also knew what Mike would have him doing once they got there. "He had this thing called the basement drill," Ryan says. "If I didn't play well, I had to put on all my equipment except my skates and basically do a half hour of cardio after the game....
"Yeah, I definitely didn't like him at the time," Ryan laughs now. "But you look back on things like that, and I think that's why I pride myself on playing to my best every night and not leaving anything in the gas tank."
In the closing seconds of the first game between Team USA and Team Canada last February in Vancouver, Kesler turned in one of the great hustle plays in U.S. Olympic hockey history. With the Americans clinging to a 4--3 lead, he outraced Canada's Corey Perry to a seemingly innocuous dump by U.S. teammate Zach Parise into the Canadian zone. Kesler tracked Perry down like a lion on the hunt and dived from behind to the outside of the forward's left leg. Splayed on the ice and using only his left hand, Kesler swept the puck across Perry and into Canada's vacant net. "That just kind of sums up his game right there," Parise says. "He likes to outwork players, and he makes that second, third effort that a lot of guys don't."
It was the highlight of an impressive tournament for Kesler, one in which he turned even some of his most ardent haters into fans. In the first round of the 2009 playoffs, during a four-game Canucks sweep, television cameras had caught Kesler and teammate Alexandre Burrows taunting Blues forward David Backes. It was the kind of stuff the old Kesler did as a matter of routine. But after Team USA—with Backes and Kesler playing major roles—came tantalizingly close to upsetting Canada for the gold medal in Vancouver, Backes began to soften. "I've said before that I hate to play against the guy," he said. "But I'm starting to admit that I might like playing with him." Well, it's a step.
Along with his new attitude, Kesler has added to his arsenal a nasty wrist shot, one so fast it can strip a goalie clean. He's been perfecting it for more than a year, shooting 500 pucks a week at a tarp festooned with five targets. Last summer Kesler experimented with a whippier shaft but found that in games, with his adrenaline pumping, he had trouble controlling his shots. So he set aside those 82 flex sticks for practices and warmups only. They stayed in his bag until last month, in a game against Columbus, when his game stick broke late in the first period. Returning to the bench, he unknowingly grabbed one of his practice sticks. Rearmed, he exploded for his first career hat trick, scoring every Vancouver goal in a 3--2 overtime victory. It began a run that saw him score 12 goals in the next 15 games, while the Canucks went 12-1-2.