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Kesselmania Runs Wild

May 13 2017
Photo by
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Photo by
Rob Carr/Getty Images
May 13 2017

I will never forget the night I saw Phil Kessel turn into Hulk Hogan.

I was right on the bench to witness the whole thing.

See, when I was a kid, my dad was an assistant coach for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and I was a rink rat. All I wanted to do was be around the team all the time. So I’d be in the locker room filling up buckets of pucks or whatever I had to do so I could be around guys like Paul Martin and Thomas Vanek, just trying to soak it all in.

And then, when I was 11 years old, this highly recruited kid named Phil Kessel came to the team. It was a huge deal at the time because Phil was a Wisconsin kid, but he had picked the Golden Gophers over the Badgers. I remember when he came in, I was kind of in awe of him because he was so good, but he was also just a hilarious guy. He had this infectious energy every time he came to the rink, like he just loved playing hockey — and that’s exactly how I felt, too.

So one day after practice, right before we were going to Wisconsin to play the Badgers, one of the guys on the team comes up to me and he’s like, “Hey Jake, Phil needs a stick boy. You think you’re up to it?”

I’m like, “Are you serious?

A stick boy, for those who don’t know, is like a gofer. You sit behind the backup goalie at the very end of the bench and make sure that if somebody’s stick breaks, you have a new one waiting for them. This is no joke. You have to be locked in. You gotta be fast and efficient. Once you see a stick snap, you have to identify the correct player’s backup stick and have it hanging over the boards for him at the perfect angle. Also, you have to know his prefered Gatorade flavor and tape color.

You’ve seen Game of Thrones, right? It’s like being a squire. It’s is a major deal. Or at least it felt like a major deal when I was 11. Because this was Phil’s first game back in Wisconsin, and it was definitely hostile territory. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but I remember it was back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday, and the atmosphere was crazy.

In the first game, Phil didn’t score. You could tell he wanted it so bad in the second game. All the guys wanted him to get one. The crowd was really giving it to him every time he touched the puck.

So in the second game, it’s 2–1 late in the third period, and I see Phil pick the puck up at center ice, and he’s flying. He comes down one-on-one with the defenseman, and he snipes it top shelf. Everybody on the bench goes crazy. I’m trying to see over everyone’s shoulders, but I’m too small. Then I hear the crowd booing like I’ve never heard a crowd boo before. Now I’m standing up on my toes trying to see what’s going on….

And I can sort of see Phil flying around the rink? Waving to the crowd or something? What the heck is he doing?

And the crowd is just booing louder and louder.

I’m like, Wait, is he…?

Oh my gosh, he is. He’s doing the Hulk Hogan.

Phil has his glove cupped to his ear, and he’s motioning to the crowd like, “What’s that? I can’t hear you.”

 

Kesselmania was running wild in Madison. The crowd was going nuts. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. At 11 years old, it was the coolest thing ever.

So, fast-forward to last November. It’s 11 years later. Now I’m 22, and I’m walking into the Penguins locker room for my first game in the NHL, and I see Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury, and my old friend, Phil Kessel. Listen, I’m not going to try to be a tough guy here. That’s a pretty nerve-racking room to walk into. I don’t care who you are.

Actually, it’s funny, because when I found out that I was getting called up from Wilkes-Barre for that first game, I immediately called my mom to tell her the news, and even she was like, “Jake, come on. Why are you lying to your mother?”

I’m like, “No, mom, it’s really real.”

Then 24 hours later, I’m in the Penguins locker room, and it’s really real. I’m just trying not to stare at anybody for too long. And then Phil walks in and sees me. He’s got a little smirk, and he doesn’t even miss a beat. He’s just like, “Hey kid … we’re back together again, huh?”

That immediately put me at ease, but then I looked up at the board, and I realized what he really meant.

GUENTZEL — MALKIN — KESSEL

I was on a line with Geno and Phil that night. I mean, wow. Obviously, that was the last thing I was expecting when I got called up. And then it got even more surreal, because when I got to my stall, I found out my neighbor was Sid.

Now I’m like, Oh boy. Keep it cool.

Everybody knows how superstitious Sid is about his whole pregame routine, so I’m just trying to stay as far away from his area as possible so I don’t accidentally knock over anything or get in his way.

But honestly, Sid was just the nicest guy right away. He said, “Hey, you’re here now, so you might as well have fun with it, eh?”

Then Geno came up and was like, “Relax, kid. Have fun.”

The thing about our locker room that blew me away was how nice everybody was to me, and how much they wanted to make me feel at home. Maybe that’s the case in most NHL rooms, but on our team, it was like every guy.

Actually, I think they could tell I was nervous before the game. My hands were so sweaty before we went out for warmups that I actually had to grab a water bottle and hold on to it to try to cool down. Luckily, once we got out there, things started out better than I ever could’ve expected.

I can’t even explain it. It’s all a blur. But on my first shift, somehow Phil found me on the wing, and I shot the puck and somehow it just went in. First shot in the NHL, no big deal. My family had flown in to Pittsburgh at the last minute from Minnesota so they could see me play, I think their reaction says it all.

 

My brother is just beside himself. Total disbelief. I’ve watched it so many times. It never gets old.

But honestly, I felt the same. I can barely remember the rest of the period, except for me and Geno and Phil coming down on a three-on-two rush, when I chipped in my second goal.

I’ll never forget this — when we get back to the locker room for the first intermission, I’m sitting there next to Sid, and I’m still nervous, and he turns to me and says, “I guess that’s a pretty good entrance to the league.”

That’s when I finally loosened up a little bit.

This season has been a whirlwind for me since that moment. When I got to Pittsburgh, I didn’t expect anything. I definitely didn’t expect to score on my first shot. And I definitely didn’t expect to find myself on Sidney Crosby’s wing during the playoffs. But that’s how it has worked out, and what can I even say? I’d watched Sid on TV since I was 10 years old. To be able to see how his mind works on the ice is just unbelievable.

Honestly, when I first got on a line with him and Conor Sheary, my instinct was to try to get Sid the puck every time. How can you not? You look up, and even if there are three guys around him, you’re thinking, Well, if he just gets his stick on it, he’s got a chance.

A lot of superstars might have loved that, but Sid was so good at communicating with me, telling me that I was out there for a reason, and to play my own game. That really helped me early on, and I think the three of us have developed a really solid chemistry. Those two guys are so good with their feet and so smart with the puck that I just try to find little soft spots to slip into, and they always seem to find me.

I’ll be the first person to tell you that I’m the luckiest guy in hockey playing with those guys. I mean, just look at the between-the-legs play that Sid made in Game 2 against the Capitals. I pass the puck to Sid at his feet, and he’s going full speed, but somehow he catches it behind his back skate and pulls it through his legs in one motion, then holds off a defender and drops it backdoor to Phil for the finish. Without losing any speed.

 

It was the kind of play I used to see Sid make on YouTube or on TV when I was a kid. But to see it at ice level, at playoff speed, I was simply in awe. It’s not just that he has the physical tools to pull off such a sick move, it’s that he has the ability to think the game so, so quickly.

The older guys always tell you what a grind the regular season is, and that’s definitely true. They also tell you how the playoffs are a whole different beast, and that’s definitely, definitely true.

The Washington series was just so fast and so physical. I remember in Game 5, I had just made a pass right by our bench, and I heard our guys yell out, “Heads up! Heads up!” That’s when you know you’re in trouble.

I turned around and I saw Tom Wilson coming straight for me. Any time a guy that big is coming at you that fast, you have just enough time to think, This isn’t good. Next thing I know, I’m getting crunched over the boards.

 

I remember thinking, O.K., what hurts? …

Nothing? Really? Alright, I survived.

That whole series was so emotional — from Sid and Conor getting hurt, to Trevor Daley going down, to the Caps fighting back to force Game 7. And, of course, you have the whole story of Marc-Andre Fleury, who is one of the best guys I have ever met in hockey.

From the first day I got to Pittsburgh, Flower made sure to talk to me every day and make me feel at home. Every day, he’s smiling and happy to be playing hockey, and making everybody feel good.

Even in Game 7 of such a tight series, with so much pressure on his shoulders, Flower is smiling and joking on the ice. Every time one of our guys blocks a shot, you can hear him yelling, “Woooooooo!”

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

He’s always reminding you, in the middle of all the pressure, that the game is supposed to be fun. He’s just the best. I can’t say enough about him. After everything he’s been through, what he did in that series was simply incredible.

I’ve never been in such an intense game in my life, and I’ll always remember two things about it. The first is skating over to Flower’s crease after the buzzer sounded and just feeling so good for him. The second is the handshake line. Just the sense of relief and awe in skating up to guys like Ovechkin and Backstrom and Holtby and shaking their hands … for a young guy like me, who’s watched them for so many years, it was actually a weird feeling.

All I could manage to say was, “Good series,” but I wish I could have said more, because that moment meant a lot to me. I’ll never forget it.

The first person I called after the game was obviously my dad. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man more fired up for a hockey game. We’ve come a long way together over the years, and I knew it was a proud moment for him. But the coach in him definitely came out eventually, and he reminded me of one last thing.

He said, “Remember, Jake … you’re only halfway there.”