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When the Madness Becomes the Blueprint

Joe Thornton and Phil Kessel have spent their careers facing down the doubters. Now, they’re facing off for the Stanley Cup, with vindication on the line.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Honestly, it was an understandable mistake to make. Phil Kessel had finished a playoff game only moments earlier, but already he had cameras and Pierre McGuire all up in his face. Kessel had scored a goal, made a series of thoughtful decisions that led to an assist on another, and looked so, so happy. He talked about how much fun he’d been having in his first season with the Penguins, how everyone was clicking on the ice. “How’s your breath?” McGuire replied.

“It’s not good, eh?” said Kessel, who has lived a life of locker rooms and chirping banter and didn’t realize that McGuire was referring to conditioning, not halitosis. As Kessel’s linemate Carl Hagelin would point out the next day, it was, in all fairness, kind of a weird question.

But since when has Phil Kessel been treated in all fairness? What would be the fun in that? The exchange was widely shared in part because it was plainly funny and in part because it was such classic Kessel: extreme awkwardness borne of exceptional skill. His noteworthy performance in Pittsburgh’s Game 3 win over Tampa in the Eastern Conference final had, as usual, dragged this unwanted interview along with it like an annoying plus-one to a party.

Kessel took the snafu in great spirits, but also with the air of a man who knew it would be one more incident for the archives. Burly and reticent, Kessel has always appeared better suited for, say, a life of lumberjackian hermitude than professional athletics. But while he has long shunned the limelight as relentlessly as he pursues the goal light, he’s only ever succeeded on one of those counts.

A week later, as Kessel and the Penguins prepared for Game 7 of their conference finals series against Tampa Bay, the San Jose Sharks defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games. This time the on-the-bench postgame interview featured Joe Thornton, who has been a Shark since late 2005. Sporting a drifter beard with a Mallen streak, the giddy veteran was asked whether he’d rather face the Penguins or the Lightning in the first Stanley Cup final of his 18-year career.

“I’ll play ’em both,” he said. “If they want to dress 40 guys, I’ll play ’em both.”

You never know how the stodgy hockey world will react to such exuberance, but Thornton’s bring-it-on swagger was correctly received as hard-won, not hollow. Prior to this series, only two active NHLers had played more regular-season games than Thornton without a Stanley Cup final appearance to show for it. (One of them, Patrick Marleau, is his Sharks teammate.) And despite a 3–2 Sharks loss to the Penguins in Game 1 on Monday night, Thornton can at least cross his name off that list.

Silicon Valley types like to go on about visionaries and disruptors, and the Sharks have known both in Joe Thornton. At his best, he opens games up while shutting teams down. He’s one of the great passers in hockey history. And yet for all his future Hall of Fame talent — and, of course, partly because of it — Thornton’s career has been punctuated by harsh criticisms and broken confidences. His leadership has been challenged, his sly asides dissected, his amorphous “ability to win” called into doubt.

To consider Phil Kessel or Joe Thornton is to submit to a hockey Rorschach: What you see almost always says more about you than it does about the ink on the page. Both players have starred in highlight packages and in silly controversies. They have endured years of examination while remaining stubbornly and unapologetically themselves. And now one of them is going to win a Stanley Cup, and it’s going to change both everything and nothing at all.

In his first years as a professional hockey player, young Joe Thornton was called by many names. Almost all the coverage of the 1997 draft, in which the Boston Bruins selected the gangly, shaggy-blonde center first overall, referenced the moniker “Big Bird.” Following Thornton’s rookie season, a teammate likened him to Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spicoli, the archetypal chill dude. Thornton’s raw size yet refined skills earned him comparisons to titans of the hockey industry like Eric Lindros and Cam Neely — though the second one came in the form of a question.

“Someone asked me, ‘When is Thornton going to be Cam Neely?’” then-Bruins coach Pat Burns recalled in Sports Illustrated in 1998. “I said, ‘Oh, how about 2005? He’ll be 26. He’ll be in his prime. He’ll be a hell of a player. That’s how long it takes some guys.’”

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Getty Images

By the end of 2005, Thornton had been shipped out of Boston and mocked by the local press as “the work forever in progress.” He finished that season with the San Jose Sharks, won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player and the Art Ross as its leading scorer, and lost in the second round of the playoffs. The Sharks reached back-to-back conference finals in 2010 and 2011, but managed to win only one game. Then, in 2014, they blew a 3–0 series lead against the rival Los Angeles Kings, and the wheels fell off the bus.

“You could see it in their eyes,” said the Kings’ Drew Doughty about the Sharks’ disintegration. “Their team and their captains and leaders … they were worried about us coming back.” (Doughty wasn’t wrong.) Cameras caught Thornton in disgusted tears. That offseason, Thornton and longtime general manager Doug Wilson got into a weirdly prolonged and uncomfortable public battle that involved the removal of Thornton’s captaincy, ongoing trade rumors, and surprisingly candid sniping.

When then-head coach Todd McLellan made a banal training camp observation that Thornton had showed up in good shape, Thornton snapped that he always showed up in good shape. When Wilson accused Thornton of lashing out in the locker room that season, Thornton replied that Wilson should shut his mouth. For the first time since Thornton joined the Sharks, the team failed to make the playoffs. Following McLellan’s ouster, fans wondered if Wilson might finally just blow up the team. This all happened last season.

After trading Thornton to the Sharks in late 2005, the Bruins drifted to a lottery finish, and in June of 2006 selected Phil Kessel with the fifth overall pick. That particular draft happened to be the focus of an ESPN the Magazine feature (that later became a book) about the rigors and realities of NHL scouting. As one of the top players in his draft class, Kessel was heavily featured in the story. It was not a flattering portrait, with Kessel painted as an unpopular teammate — Jack Johnson, who played with Kessel on the U.S. national team, called him a “dirtbag;” Kessel meekly countered that he and Johnson had eaten lunch together every day — and a sullen, uncharismatic presence.

“I’m kind of an emotional person,” Kessel later said when asked about the article, “and when something like that comes out about you and it’s not true, it hurts.” Still, it was an apt preview of the relationship Kessel would come to have with certain factions of the hockey world. During his rookie year with the Bruins, the 19-year-old Kessel went to the doctor in discomfort and was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He missed 11 games for treatment and won the Masterton Trophy for perseverance. But by 2009 he, too, was on his way out of Boston, and headed into the Thunderdome that is the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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Getty Images

As a Maple Leaf, Kessel had two 80-point seasons. Four times he scored at least 30 goals. Twice he played for the U.S. in the Olympics. (His sister, Amanda, was also on the women’s team in Sochi.) But the trade that had brought him to the hockey hotbed hadn’t done him any favors; Toronto had paid a steep price. One of the draft picks the Leafs gave up turned into Tyler Seguin, and when he scored against Toronto in a 2010 game Boston fans chanted “Thank you, Kessel!” Later that season, the Bruins and Seguin won the Stanley Cup.

Despite Kessel’s talents and the cost of the trade, the Leafs were never great at getting the most out of the guy. For a while, the Leafs coaching staff clung to a misguided system that did little to feature Kessel’s strengths. And at any rate, to many observers, even one of Kessel’s best features — his smooth, speedy skating — often scanned as a bug. Since it didn’t look like he was trying hard, the flawed logic went, he must not be. (Kessel’s Twitter bio — “Nice guy, tries hard, loves the game” — didn’t help convince critics.)

Kessel has never been a gregarious soul, and the more he withdrew from reporters, the more he lived down to their expectations. Things boiled over last season: In January of 2015, Kessel bristled at suggestions that his play had led to a coach’s firing. Two months later, he made a point to announce that the media’s treatment of Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf was embarrassing. “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves,” Kessel said. “I’m embarrassed for them. I don’t think anyone deserves to be treated like that.” He should know.

There are, of course, other guys in the Cup final besides Thornton and Kessel who have faced down the doubters over the years. Thornton’s name is rarely mentioned without Marleau, whom the Sharks drafted second overall in 1997, after the Bruins took Thornton. All the failed playoff appearances that are used to rip Thornton haunt Marleau, as well.

Sidney Crosby has been shouldering the burden of being the NHL’s most visible superstar since before he even entered the league. (Even as recently as December, he was being labeled a coach-killer.) But Crosby is adept at managing, with deft blandness, the bulk of the scrutiny thrown his way. Marleau, too, mostly seems to let it roll off his back.

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Getty Images

Thornton and Kessel are another story; these are men with terrible poker faces who share the quality, and the curse, of being wholly and unapologetically themselves. They are a media handler’s worst nightmare; they are rare gifts from the hockey gods. They will never pander — not to the press, not to the fans, and never to the man.

While Kessel is brand new to the Penguins and Thornton has been on the Sharks for what feels like forever, both of them are where they are because they wouldn’t yield. Each of them exercised language in their contracts in order to keep their careers under their control. Thornton used a no-trade clause to stay put in San Jose despite the public spat with Wilson. Kessel, meanwhile, chose a handful of teams that he’d accept a trade to, and he seems to have chosen wisely.

Every name on the Stanley Cup has its story. There are the young guys who come from nowhere and wind up everywhere, winning a championship while their players’ association card is still being processed. There are good Canadian boys and sleek Euro snipers and grizzled monsters of indeterminate origin who have played for more teams than they have remaining teeth. There are hot goalies and injured inspirations and shady owners. And there are the guys whose name on the Cup ought to be inscribed alongside a tiny middle finger.

Sometimes the most absurd situations are the most illuminating. One of the more fun evenings in semi-recent Sharks history came in the fall of 2013, when then-rookie Tomas Hertl had a flashy four-goal breakout game that lit up the Shark Tank. Two days later, Thornton overheard a question about whether the youth had been a little too exuberant. The scrum of reporters disbanded, and Thornton cracked a joke. He had scored seven goals over the entirety of the previous regular season. If he were ever to record four in one game? “I’d have my cock out if I scored four goals,” he said. “I’d have my cock out, stroking it.”

What was meant as a self-deprecating aside instead became an official piece of history, forever a bit of Sharks whimsy. It was broadcast, with varying degrees of censorship or creative obfuscation, in newspapers and on Twitter. It became a launching point for tiresome discussions about ethics in locker room journalism. It almost certainly was an enormous annoyance to Thornton, the Sharks, and the poor PR staff. But it was also a description of hockey more evocative than most sanctioned sports writing. It was a rad guy acknowledging a beautiful hockey moment in a sufficiently weird and wonderful way. It was Joe being Joe.

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Not to be outdone, Kessel, too, recently found himself at the center of a ridiculous subplot involving cylindrical meat. After Kessel was traded to Pittsburgh, his exit was feted with a bizarre column in the Toronto Sun asserting that the Leafs “held their breath, plugged their noses, and ostensibly gave Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins because they couldn’t stand having him around anymore.”

This was pretty standard stuff, really. What stood out was the article’s first sentence. “The hot dog vendor who parks daily at Front and John Sts. just lost his most reliable customer,” it began. This odd mention piqued the interest of a Maple Leafs blog, and an in-depth investigation into the allegations that Kessel bought a hot dog at 2:30 p.m. every day poked some serious holes in the Sun’s report. (Talk about mystery meat!)

And so Kessel’s first weeks as a Pittsburgh Penguin were marked mostly by in-depth and mapped-out discussions about Toronto street meat vendors. Is it any wonder that Kessel assumed McGuire was giving him a hard time about his breath?

Even if McGuire had been, though, there’s no breath mint more potent than the Stanley Cup, which has a way of masking all sorts of horrors. Championships routinely cast bumbling fools as genius executives, and elevate lucky breaks into civic lore. No one looks for the method in your madness until you win big — and once you do, it becomes your blueprint. Either Phil Kessel or Joe Thornton is going to win a Cup this season, and for the one who does, his checkered past and personality quirks will suddenly be considered endearing. For the other man, they will be offered as proof of why he could not seal the deal.

It’s alternately exciting and depressing to think about, but the good news is that neither of these guys will be fundamentally changed by winning or losing a Cup. Vindicated, sure. Motivated, yes. But these players are who they are because they are who they are. Some guys are so worried about always being onside that they’re perpetually straddling the blue line: one foot in the future, one in the past. Not so with Kessel or Thornton. They’ve never been afraid to blaze right into the zone, whistles and penalties be damned.