I find it a little surprising how not-big a deal the NHL’s ironman record is. Phil Kessel is your new record-holder, with 990 consecutive games played after Tuesday night’s appearance, and if you didn’t go looking for the pomp, you might not even have noticed. It’s not the splash on TSN. It’s not the splash on ESPN’s hockey page (though Greg Wyshynski had a lovely piece talking to Kessel’s teammates through the years). Certainly nothing as inescapable as Cal Ripken Jr. chasing down Lou Gehrig in 1995.
This isn’t a “please like my sport” complaint, mind you; more some out-loud thinking as to why it isn’t a bigger deal, even within the hockey world. (Am I writing this blog mainly because I thought to myself, “We should have something on this?” Who can say.) Maybe it’s because in hockey you’re expected to play every game you’re healthy, or even healthy-ish, unlike baseball, where players get regularly scheduled days off. Maybe it’s because the NHL ironman record hasn’t stood for very long—since last January, when Keith Yandle passed Doug Jarvis. (Yandle’s feat was even less hyped than Kessel’s, both because everyone knew Kessel was hot on his heels and because Yandle had passed the end of his effective playing days and was sticking around just to get the record.) Maybe because the players involved aren’t legends and hall-of-famers, as they were in baseball. Maybe baseball is just uniquely good about keeping its history alive and relevant. (Without looking, do you even know who the NBA’s and NFL’s iron men are? It’s A.C. Green and Brett Favre.)
The lack of hype does nothing to lessen the achievement. Because playing in every single game from Nov. 3, 2009, when Kessel was just 22 years old, through now is an incredible thing in a sport perfectly designed to injure. When asked how many mornings he had woken up over the last 13 years and thought, I don’t have it in me to play today, Kessel replied, “A lot.” When asked what he was thinking as he broke the record, Kessel mused, “I’ve played a lot of time. I’m getting old.” Like any longevity record, the streak was more about surviving than anything else. Kessel’s game and mindset were perhaps uniquely suited to survive. He’s big. He’s fast. He’ll muscle you off the puck. He’s not the type of player who’s going to drop to the ice to block a shot, or mix it up in the corners on the backcheck. He’s well-liked in the dressing room, and well-equipped to let it roll off his back when he hears it from fans or columnists. A steady, easygoing personality paired with a hyper-competitive, straight-line playing style, a ton of luck and a ton of will—that’s how you get to 990 straight games.
Kessel has played his share of roles. A much-hyped young scorer and inspirational cancer survivor in Boston, he was part of a megatrade to Toronto where he occasionally ran afoul of a particularly terrible media scene, and I think just about everyone involved was relieved when he was shipped out as part of a rebuild. It was in Pittsburgh that he shined the brightest, becoming an integral part of the offense on two Cup teams (and, satisfyingly, proving that the problem in Toronto was not him, but rather everything else there). The obscurity of Arizona felt like the start of his semi-retirement, though as he’s said many times, he really does just enjoy playing hockey, no matter where or how low the stakes. But now he’s back in the spotlight, signing a cheap one-year deal with Vegas where he won’t be asked to do much but add some depth scoring and set a good example for some of the younger dudes.
Game 990 came on the road in San Jose, but Kessel still received a standing ovation when play was halted in the first period to celebrate the record. (Kessel had told the Golden Knights he didn’t want any sort of ceremony. “He really doesn’t like the attention,” owner Bill Foley said. Too bad, Phil.) Not long after, Kessel did what he’s done for so many years: outskate a defenseman, turn on the jets, use that big body to gain the angle, and beat a goalie high to find twine.
We’ve seen that before. A lot. It was Kessel’s 400th career goal, making him the 12th American-born player and the 11th active player to hit that mark. Scoring a goal, and getting a 4-2 win, seemed to be more important to him Tuesday than the ironman record. “I’ve always been the guy that would rather play than sit out,” Kessel said. “I try to play no matter what.”
Kessel’s record, unlike Yandle’s, will stand awhile. Brent Burns has appeared in 685 straight games, and no other active player has more than 500. It’s often been very easy to take Kessel and what he’s done for granted, but he’s going to be missed when he’s gone. No reason to delay your appreciation until then, too.