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?