SAN JOSE, CALIF. – The run to the Stanley Cup Final has been a family affair for Phil Kessel’s kinfolk.
“Every game against Tampa [in the Eastern Conference Final], probably every Penguins home game, lots of cousins, me, my brother, my parents, Phil’s best friends, we’ve been there,” said Amanda Kessel, the three-time Gophers national champion and the sister of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ leading scorer. “It’s been a fun and busy time. It’s been pretty unexpected, and it’s kind of crazy how things happen. You go to a new team and end up here. It’s just been really fun and exciting.”
Amanda Kessel, her brother Blake, and parents Kathy and Phil Sr. attended Sunday’s Game 6 and got to celebrate on the ice with Phil afterward.
“I say it to myself multiple times, I can’t believe he’s playing for a Stanley Cup,” said Amanda, one of the best players in the world herself. She recently signed the most lucrative contract in National Women’s Hockey League history with the New York Riveters.
“You realize how hard it is to get to this point. Every time he’s gotten closer and closer, I just don’t believe it. I go to bed and wake up and say, ‘I can’t believe this.’ I’m really happy for him.”
Phil Kessel, 28, finished with a Penguins-leading 10 goals and 22 points.
“I expect this out of him,” said Amanda, four years younger. “Just always growing up and idolizing him, I know how good he is. When he plays this hard, he’s going to be one of the best players all the time.”
Her often-scrutinized big brother was essentially run out of Toronto with last summer’s trade to Pittsburgh. Asked if this postseason display and the fact he is nearly a point-a-game player in his 46-game playoff career is vindication, Amanda Kessel said: “For some reason, I don’t know what it is, he’s always in the middle of stuff. But I know what a great person he is and how hard he works. Everything coming his way right now, he definitely deserves.”
Phil Kessel was ecstatic after Pittsburgh’s 3-1 victory. “I’m way happier than I thought it was going to be. It’s all special,” he said. “How can you ask for anything better than this?”
Memories, and Howe
Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford was lucky enough to break in with the Detroit Red Wings as a 21-year-old rookie when Gordie Howe, who died at age 88 Friday, was there as a 42-year-old.
“Your first year in the league is exciting enough, but when you enter that room with such a great player like him, it was special,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford recalled a time when the Red Wings didn’t give him permission to attend his grandfather’s funeral. He decided to go, nevertheless.
“[Howe] was the first one there to come up to me from the side, give you a little elbow and said, ’Hey kid, good for you. That’s exactly what you should have done,’” Rutherford said.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby called Howe a role model.
“When you think of hockey, … you think of Gordie Howe — the way he played, the way he conducted himself,” Crosby said.
Crosby met Howe after a game in Detroit early in his career. “Like anyone else, you don’t even know what to say,” Crosby said. “You kind of shake his hand, you’re in awe. The way he spends time talking to people, there’s so many people who want to meet him, take a picture with him. He made you feel comfortable. Just a genuine person.”
To honor Howe, players wore Mr. Hockey decals on their helmets in warmups, and there was a video tribute before the second period. The homage was pushed back because before the game, the league held a moment of silence to honor the victims of Sunday’s mass shooting in Orlando.