The only value in the Steve Simmons column that everyone’s talking about this morning is the news that Phil Kessel eats a street hot dog every damn day. Personally, I think that’s funny and humanizing. Toronto’s troll-columnist-in-chief uses it as a fat joke, and exhibit A in the case for Kessel being run out of town.
Yesterday, the Maple Leafs shipped Kessel to the Penguins in exchange for partial salary relief. He had to go: the Leafs need a full rebuild, and they didn’t need his hefty long-term contract, no matter that his scoring justifies it. Most Leafs fans get it, and while they aren’t happy to see one of the league’s top offensive talents go, they don’t begrudge Toronto’s decision-makers for doing what they must to clean up the mess left by the previous front office.
They also generally don’t begrudge Kessel for the Leafs’ team struggles, despite the local media’s long insistence on blaming him to shield Burke/Nonis/Carlyle. So, Simmons’s column isn’t the start of a campaign to smear Kessel on his way out; they’ve been smearing him for years.
Simmons hits all the familiar beats: leadership, conditioning, effort, personality. “When you have an illness, you must get rid of the poison,” he writes, mistaking Kessel for an infectious agent rather than a symptom of what’s ailed the Leafs. This is the Cliffs Notes version of the local media’s consistent portrayal of Kessel, whose biggest actual crime was not being on a good team, but who’s more important transgression (as perceived by his prosecutors) was not being nicer to reporters.
In almost any other market, Kessel would be a cult hero. He scores all the time. He’s charmingly surly. He beat cancer. He eats hot dogs. He’s American. (I do wonder how much that played against him in Toronto.) But more than anything else, he looks like an average dude. He’s chubby and slobbish and balding, and is the reigning fastest man on skates and can score like no one’s business. Every Phil Kessel goal is a fat-guy touchdown. Every single time I’ll take the star player who looks like me, rather than the majority that look like they’re from a different species altogether. What is not to love about an unathletic-looking man who happens to be one of the best athletes in the world?
Maybe it’s inadvertent, but he’s a master of physical comedy:
While the most critical parts of Simmons’s column are largely ad hominem, its intent is deeper than a personal attack. It’s an apologia for a team that’s been poorly run. If, as Simmons wants you to believe, Kessel was the cancer, then excising him will immediately put the Leafs on the road to recovery. It shifts the narrative to the palatable “Kessel was a problem and had to be traded,” and away from the truth: that this is a franchise that’s been driven into the ground, and the way back is going to be long and hard and requires giving up their only great player for a bag of pucks and losing for a few more years.
The trade, even with its underwhelming return, was painful and necessary. But that necessity didn’t spring from Phil Kessel eating hot dogs. To imply it did is an insult to the patience and intelligence of Leafs fans who, for the first time in years, can allow themselves to hope that their front office can do things right.