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Sports

Phil Kessel Was Never Loved in Toronto

Phil Kessel scored a lot of goals for the Leafs. That alone wasn't enough for Toronto fans to ever really embrace him.
July 2, 2015, 4:39pm
Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

For many, the phrase "Phil Kessel, Maple Leaf" just never had a ring to it.

Like Mats Sundin before him, Kessel was brought to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a controversial trade that he only began to get out from under near the end of his tenure. His 30-plus goals a year became a reliable tradition while he laboured under impossible expectations and speculation surrounding his inward persona. Now he'll waddle down to Pittsburgh to become a Penguin alongside the best player in hockey.

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Kessel was never loved in Toronto. He was defended for his scoring prowess. He was defended, rightfully, for not being an extrovert. He was defended by the opposing team's best defenders. He was never, however, embraced by the city's fan base at large—and that's fine. That's how fickle fan bases work. They have a type and stick to it, and being a fan is not all about winning, logic or reason.

Fans want to watch a personality they can see clearly from the back of the bar. Like Felix Potvin's goal mask or Doug Gilmour's beaten brow. They want to watch winners, too, and that's surely why the 1993 Leafs and later Sundin's teams have a place in the heart of Toronto. Kessel didn't do a lot of that but it was his performance in the 2013 playoffs that should be his lasting legacy with the blue and white. He scored at even strength against Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins, a feat he had yet to accomplish until that point. He scored on the rush and he scored in front of the net. It was a Phil Kessel Leafs fans could hum along to. But it wasn't for long.

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Optics are the enemy of reason in sports. A tall centre like Sundin didn't appear to be skating as hard as a waterbug like Steve Sullivan, even though the captain produced more. Kessel looked despondent, lackadaisical on the backcheck, drained on the bench. He sounded indifferent while his skates ripped up Air Canada Centre ice. He chose poorly timed tweets and told the media that he barely skated in the summer. Despite this, he was one the league's best point producers, playing alongside gooey centre Tyler Bozak. But it was Kessel's midsection that received smirks and eye rolls.

Sundin never had a premier winger to burn defenders with and he similarly had to fight through biases to eventually become beloved. Being traded for wunderkind Wendel Clark made that difficult. Being European made that difficult. Sundin looked composed, rarely let anger burst forth from his perpetually smiling face. He took the Leafs deep into the playoffs and that's the difference between 13 and 81, through no fault of Kessel's own. There's optics and then there's reason. And then there's winning.

The Leafs were not built to win during Kessel's stay. Former Leafs general manager Brian Burke talked of five-year plans and patience and then traded two firsts and a second-round pick to Boston. Toronto got a great player but lost sight of what every team's goal should be: consistency. Burke, meanwhile, would later explain that he felt ticket prices needed to be justified and that acquiring a player of Kessel's calibre did just that. How romantic, fans thought. It was the wrong time and place for a player skating through his prime goal-scoring years. It was the wrong time for a depleted Leafs team to hitch their ride to one of the best players in the league.

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That's what Kessel was, one of the best—his numbers consistently competing with other headline-snagging snipers. But oh, the weight of expectations. Former Bruin Derek Sanderson explained to fans why being at the top is great until you're asked to climb higher.

"It's the fear of success as much as the fear of failure that gets you," he said. "You score 24 and people are asking, 'OK, what about 30?' You score 30 and people wanna know, 'What about 35?' You chase and chase and you hide the fact that you're terrified of not getting there."

Before fans heard things like that from Sanderson, he seemed to embody rock 'n roll like Clark and Gilmour after him. Perhaps Leafs fans don't like progressive rock or classical or folk. They can't much control whose praises they sing and whose they don't. They know who they love and they love them because.

This is not to compare Kessel with past Leafs greats for their on-ice merits or wildly different team contexts. The '93 team better harboured their top talent while Kessel was often head and shoulders above his peers. Kessel was not the type to lead a team, though he was put in the position to do so, optically. Ownership and management and coaching put Kessel in a spotlight inappropriate for him and fans rightfully balked. It's neither their fault nor his. There's no fault to be passed around here. Sports fandom is for playing favourites while irrationally hating exemplary human beings like Daniel Alfredsson.

Kessel's Twitter bio and maxim reads: "Nice guy, tries hard, loves the game." It's an inside joke from his days with Boston, when teammate Marc Savard used those words to describe any player he didn't know from each game sheet. Kessel reminds fans that he remains unknowable, maybe unlovable, making Toronto's dry-eyed farewell more of a reflection of the fans at large than Kessel's on-ice performance. Just about every team has its own version of selective favouritism.

With Brendan Shanahan and Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas now in control in Toronto, perhaps Leafs fans will learn to sing to a different tune. Just don't be surprised if Kessel's legacy forever sounds flat.