Phil Kessel Is Expecting Boos (and so am I)

The return of Phil Kessel to the Air Canada Centre is gonna be huge. 

(Well, except for the part where there probably won’t be any kind of tribute for him, but that’s beside the point. Kind of. I think.)

Kessel is bringing his Pittsburgh Penguins – who got off to a pretty slow start this year, and want to prove that they’re going to turn that around – to visit the Toronto Maple Leafs, who got started off pretty slowly this year and don’t expect that to change. It could very easily be a barn burner. 

So naturally, Kessel doesn’t expect his former loyal fans to be very… well, warm in their reception of him. 

Not always, Phil. 

I’ll give Kessel credit: he’s being pretty diplomatic about the whole thing. Considering that he was the team’s leading scorer for six years – and was traded to jump-start a rebuild that the Leafs sorely need, nonetheless – it’s a sign that the Leafs fans probably aren’t too happy with Phil the Thrill. 

Is that fair? 

Well, it depends on how you look at it. 

Last season, the disastrously-bad Arizona Coyotes dealt away centre Antoine Vermette to help the Blackhawks chase a Stanley Cup, and his return to Gila River Arena got a standing ovation. While he went back to the Coyotes, though, Jarome Iginla – who opted to sign with the Boston Bruins the summer after he was dealt to the Penguins mid-season – got a standing ovation for his first game back in Calgary. The Coyotes honored Radim Vrbata last year to cheers from the fans, the Boston Bruins held a tribute for Shawn Thornton (and he got a standing ovation), Mike Modano got a tribute in his return to Dallas, and Ryan Smyth will always get love in Edmonton. 

Player returns can be ugly – watching Mike Ribeiro return to Arizona last year was pretty nasty, and Ryan Kesler got a pretty lukewarm mix of cheers and boos when he skated back out on the ice in Vancouver – but for the most part, guys who contributed for their team are given a warm welcome home. Even Martin St. Louis, who expected to get booed in Tampa Bay, was given a standing ovation during his tribute in Tampa Bay. 

Kessel’s right to be expecting boos, though – his departure from the Leafs wasn’t on the best of terms, and his tenure with the team was as lukewarm as the team’s performance over the six year span (even if his own performance was statistically above average). After all, this is the team whose mainstream media wrote a wax poetic about Kessel and hot dogs when he was dealt to Pittsburgh. 

The best way to look at it is to compare Kessel’s return to Mats Sundin’s. 

Leafs Nation and Sportsnet video guru Steve Dangle made a good point in his reaction to the Kessel trade when he said that he spent his entire childhood praying for a proper winger for Sundin, then spent the last six years begging for a proper centre for Kessel. Both Sundin and Kessel were top-rated talents for Toronto, but lacked the supporting cast to get the job done (the job, of course, being a Stanley Cup); the difference here, though, is that Leafs fans were already restless by the time Kessel came along. He doesn’t have the bright and shiny years that Sundin did, even if neither forward won a cup in the GTA. 

Leafs fans were already fed up by the time Kessel came along, and his notoriously less-than-bubbly personality made him a pretty easy scapegoat for blaming the last few seasons. There will be fans who think that he’s fat, lazy, and not all he’s cracked up to be – and while I’ll hope for plenty of cheers for Toronto’s six-time leading scorer, we have to expect those boos, as well. 

Sorry, Phil. You deserve better.