By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 3) — I have no problem with Phil Kessel calling out the dastardly media or sticking up for teammate Dion Phaneuf.
Fast Phil did both today in a well–conceived yet uncharacteristic diatribe after the Toronto Maple Leafs game–day skate in Sunrise, Fla. On the few occasions in which Kessel has spoken up while playing in Toronto, his message has been rather substantive. As it was today — 24 hours after a lewd Tweet that involved Phaneuf (but had nothing to do with Toronto hockey reporters) appeared on TSN during its trade deadline coverage. Want to spill vitriol into a radio microphone? All good here, as it was during my 23 years holding a mike for The FAN-590.
Sadly absent, however, during Kessel’s tirade was a mirror. It would have cast a perfect reflection on his liberal use of the word “embarrassing,” given there is no other way to describe how Kessel long ago threw in the towel on the 2014–15 National Hockey League season. His lazy, apathetic performance since mid–December rather belies such unconditional love for a teammate; the hockey club, or its massive following. At no point during a pitiful display of four goals in 22 games (dating to Jan. 12) has Kessel — when provided the opportunity — accounted for his appalling indifference. “I’m pretty cold right now” or “things just aren’t bouncing for me” has been the extent of self–recrimination. Which, to me, is the epitome of embarrassment.
IT’S COOL THAT PHIL KESSEL (RIGHT) CAME OUT IN VERBAL SUPPORT OF TEAMMATE DION PHANEUF (LEFT) EARLIER TODAY IN FLORIDA. MUCH LESS COOL IS KESSEL’S APATHY SINCE MID–DECEMBER, WHICH HAS HELPED TO DRAG MAPLE LEAFS INTO THE ABYSS YET AGAIN. TORONTO SUN IMAGE
And, it has nothing to do with Kessel’s inflated salary. Let’s be honest — the only professionals that deserve $8 million a year are those who save lives. Doctors and surgeons. Especially the ones involved with pediatrics. It is impossible to rationalize a hockey player earning more than a doctor that returns a sick child to health. So, forget the eight–year, $64–million extension Kessel agreed to in October 2013. Far more salacious is a hockey player swinging the lead; one who refuses to maximize the gift that enabled him to earn such a haul. That has been Kessel since mid–December, when the Maple Leafs inevitably cooled off from the 10–1–1 eruption in which they became the NHL’s highest–scoring team. When everything was going into the net, Fast Phil had it in overdrive. When the deluge ended, he put it in cruise control and offered nothing to help the club. Not a smidgen of character or resolve that might have willed his ‘mates beyond an abbreviated slump. Instead, he went perfectly dry with the team, often skulking to the bench after a languid defensive effort led to an opposition goal. In my opinion, No. 81 — as much as any person in the Maple Leafs organization — is responsible for the 6–24–2 eyesore in the days and weeks since Dec. 16.
The irony in Kessel’s verbal sheltering of Phaneuf is that he’s rarely been willing to apply himself like the Toronto captain. I agree with Phil when he says Phaneuf takes too much guff from local fans and media. At least the captain seems concerned when he’s on the ice — misadventure notwithstanding. That’s a lot more than we can say for the body language and offensive output of Kessel during his club’s remarkable free–fall. And, it’s the number–one reason why Brendan Shanahan and David Nonis (should the latter be retained as general manager) must ensure that Kessel is skating elsewhere next season.
No. 81’s near–complete absence of integrity, drive and determination on the ice since mid–December has permeated the roster. It cannot be retained with any plausibility if the Maple Leafs are to move forward.
I spoke my bit today on TSN–1290 Radio in Winnipeg with my former FAN–590 colleague Rick Ralph. Audio link is here:
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