Phil Kessel’s a Milk Bag and That’s OK

Much ado has recently been made over Phil Kessel’s seemingly low “Give-a-Shit Meter” reading.  The milk bag physique, reports of lazy summers spent fishing, playing poker and golfing, and the fact that he views training camp and pre-season as a way to get back into shape all suggest that he’s resistant and rebellious.  30 years ago, Kessel would have been following the norm, but now—in the age of the VO2 max, Wingate, and body fat tests—he is mocking the system.

Now, we all know that staying in shape during the off-season is both important and beneficial.  All you have to do is watch an NHL game from 1975 followed by a game from 2013 and anyone can see that the players now are bigger, stronger and faster.  But, how crucial is it for a player like Phil Kessel to bust his ass all summer to look like Georges St. Pierre?  Would Kessel’s 35 – 40 goals per year turn into 50 or 60?  Would he suddenly go from being great to legendary?  There is really only one way to find out, but the odds of that happening anytime soon is likely slim to none; at least not while Kessel is still performing like an elite level superstar.

The question still lingers: Should Kessel be doing more in the off-season to elevate his game?  My response to this question is to answer a question with another question: “Why?”  Why should Phil Kessel do anything differently?  He’s an explosive skater with an ultra-quick release and he seems to have energy levels that are through the roof.  There have never been reports of him failing out of fitness testing and even his teammates say that he’s a freak.

The fact is the human body is an endless topic of debate, especially in athletics.  It’s a paradox.  There are always new and improved training techniques about how to best fine-tune the body for performance, and everyone is different.  We all know that one kid we went to high school with that naturally looked like Bo Jackson.  He never worked out and he ate pizza and Oreos for every meal.  And then there’s Bo Jackson himself, possibly the greatest pure athlete ever, who admittedly never put much effort into training.

All that being said, why do we hate Phil Kessel for not working out and being so dominant while revering Bo Jackson? The reason is Kessel doesn’t look like a dominant athlete is supposed to look like.  We can let Jackson slide because he looks like he’s cut from stone, but Kessel looks more like a PBA bowling star than an NHL star.  It’s all about appearances and perception.

The one important aspect we are forgetting amid this debate is mental well-being and the desire to compete.  We’ve all heard the old saying: “Sports are 90% mental and 10% physical,” and most will agree that this is mostly true, but it’s often overlooked when it comes down to preparing to compete at elite levels.

Not everyone likes working out and training, while some absolutely love it.  I, for one, loved that part of being a professional hockey player.  It was the one thing I could control.  I loved going into the gym and having a plan and executing it.  I loved the strain, the sweat and the sense of accomplishment when the workout was complete.  For me, working out gave me a huge mental boost.  It gave me confidence and fueled my desire to succeed.

Other guys I played with (Most who were much better players than me) absolutely loathed the gym.  They hated it so much that they stressed about having to drag themselves into the gym after practices and in the off-season.  For these guys, it actually hurt them from a mental standpoint.  The more they worked out in the off-season, the more their desire to play decreased.  These were some of the players, that when the season came around, were already sick and tired of the grind.

In hockey, hunger and desire is critical to who can elevate their game and who can’t.  NHL players aren’t exempt from having feelings of resentment towards the game of hockey.  Everyone goes through rough patches and sometimes you just don’t want to be at the rink.  It’s a love/hate relationship and just like any relationship, you have to find ways to spice it up.

So for Phil Kessel, the key to a long, passionate relationship with the game of hockey might be Bud Lights, fairways and trophy marlins in the off-seasons.  As long as he keeps performing, who the hell really cares?

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

About Jamie McKinven

Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

View all posts by Jamie McKinven →

One Comment on “Phil Kessel’s a Milk Bag and That’s OK”

  1. ah… I would guess… the LEAF NATION and perhaps management care. I agree with you…ultimately he is paid elite money and his stats to me…seem like he has earned his keep.

    I also do not believe he is impossible to coach… you and I both know you do not get to his level of excellence without a love for the game or having spent many, many hours playing the game. I am sure Phil would tell you there are people that help develop those skills and that taught him and obviously he listened and mastered some of those skills way better than other players (my guess is also way faster than anyone else). It is not like Phil just started playing hockey in the NHL…you have to put thousands and thousands of hours into this game to play at his level (even if he is really, really gifted).

    I am also sure we all played with a guy that was a can’t miss prospect that missed…. how does that happen? I remember in Bantam, we had a guy on our team that broke… I guess 5-6 panes of glass that year with his shot… he could say “see that glass over there” ..and within 3 shots…it was broken. I have played lots of hockey in my life, and he is still the only guy I have seen break a pane of glass…let alone 5-6 within a 6 months period. How did he not make it? Apparently (although I did not see it), he could throw a football 65 yards (at age 16) too, and 1 time we were short a player for a baseball game, and asked him to play with us. He said but I have never played organized baseball before… we said that’s fine (we would have defaulted if he had not agreed to play). Of course, he hit 2 home runs (over the fence) that game. At that age, none of us hit home runs(at ;east not over the fence) … we may have the odd hit that rolled to the bottom of the fence, but he was freak…He just didn’t care… didn’t have the desire for sports… and trust me that was a waste… that guy could have played any sport (likely) at elite levels if he really wanted to.

    I suspect Phil is similar, he is a guy with an insane natural athletic ability that is elite (for sure) but will never be legendary in spite of….himself. That’s ok, IMO he is still a very important part of his team…and he made it to the top because of an insane about of natural talent. That’s what made Wayne Gretzky, Wayne Gretzky… he had that same insanely natural ability, but he also had the passion and committed to the game. I suspect if Phil had done the same, he would be in the discussion of one of the best right wingers to ever play the game.

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