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Northeast: One year later, new outlook serving Kessel well

by James Murphy

Boston Bruins forward Phil Kessel has recovered
from the testicular cancer surgery he underwent last
season, and claims to have a new outlook on life.
A year ago, Boston Bruins forward Phil Kessel, then 19, was trying to fathom how much his life had changed and the magnitude of what he had just experienced.

On Dec. 11, 2006, Kessel underwent surgery for testicular cancer, and as Kessel pointed out recently, the way he looked at his own life – and life in general – dramatically changed.

“It was obviously a very tough situation for me or anyone my age to go through and I was affected by it, for sure,” Kessel said. “It really made me realize how quickly life can change and made me appreciate what I have.”

What Kessel had last December, and what he thankfully still has, is a promising NHL career. But that wasn’t what stood out most from this experience.

“I just realized how lucky I was to have such a good and supportive family and friends around me,” Kessel said. “My family, my friends and, of course, my teammates were really there for me. It really put things in perspective and made me realize how lucky I was.”

In turn, that new-found outlook on life changed his approach to his job, and as he puts it, made him look at it as “a game” again. Prior to his surgery, Kessel admittedly had struggled with the pressures and demands of being a highly touted prospect. But since returning to action last Jan. 8, and even more so this season, Kessel has grown comfortable with his role on and off the ice.

“I just thought about a lot then and realized that I’m getting paid to play a game, so I tried to have fun again and just go out and play hockey,” he said. “I know how lucky I am to be playing in the NHL and now I just try to go out there every day and enjoy the game again. Maybe at first I was nervous a bit and trying too hard not to make mistakes, but after what happened last year, I just decided to go out and play.”

Kessel’s roommate last season, Marc Savard, noticed the different approach and commended Kessel’s maturity throughout the diagnosis and surgery.

“I was actually with him when he decided he should go to the doctors to get checked and that right there showed me some maturity, that he could recognize the seriousness of it,” Savard said. “But being with him after the surgery I could see a change, and you could tell he was approaching things differently and playing without a weight on his shoulders. He was simply playing for the love of the game because he learned life is more than just hockey.”

Savard also has seen the on-ice improvements that resulted from this approach.

“We knew from the get-go that he had all the tools to succeed, but it takes time to learn what it takes to put that to use and he’s learned how to do that on a more consistent basis this season,” Savard said of Kessel, who has 15 points (nine goals, six assists), and has become a key cog in the Bruins lineup.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli also has been impressed with Kessel’s maturity, specifically his improved work ethic and commitment to not just the team, but also to the work he does to raise awareness of all forms of cancer.

“I really think Phil went from a wide-eyed rookie to a young adult in a very short period of time,” Chiarelli said. “The fact that he knew enough to go to the doctor showed maturity, then the way he dealt with the subsequent press conference and everything he had to do in the aftermath and also the way he has continued to attend events and do his best to make people aware of the cancer. All of this has been really impressive.”

According to Chiarelli, Kessel returned to Boston intent on being in better shape for training camp and with a positive outlook for this season.

“He showed up in the summer and started a rigorous conditioning program and that showed he really was committed to being a better player,” Chiarelli said. “Now he’s more consistent because he’s doing the little intangibles off the ice.”

Kessel, now 20, lives on his own and has established himself as one of the young talents in the League. But he never will forget what he went through and what he learned a year ago.

“I am lucky to have the support I had and still have,” he said. “This is the best job in the world and I’m happy to be healthy, first and foremost, and then just be playing hockey.”

Shootout summary -- There was only one shootout in the Northeast Division this past week, and it was the Canadiens losing their sixth-straight game at home in a 3-2 shootout loss to Tampa Bay. Brad Richards beat Carey Price (29 saves in regulation), with the lone shootout goal and Marc Denis (28 saves in regulation), stopped three shots in the shootout.

Who’s hot? -- Acquired last Thursday after Tim Thomas suffered a groin injury, Phoenix castaway Alex Auld started for the Bruins Saturday at Toronto and made 25 saves to backstop his new team to a 2-1 win. Monday, Auld bailed the Bruins out with a 44-save effort in a 4-1 win at Buffalo.

Marc Savard’s 12-game point streak was broken with a pointless game in the win over Toronto Saturday, but the

Bruins center recovered with a two-point showing (goal, assist), in the win over Buffalo Monday. … Sabres forward Derek Roy has one goal and three assists in his last three games. … Ray Emery is re-emerging as the No. 1 goaltender in Ottawa as he posted two wins over the past week with a 2.93 goals-against average. … The Maple Leafs continued to turn their season around this past week as they went 2-1. Toronto is getting production from all areas of the ice. Defenseman Hal Gill, known for his defensive skills, had five assists in three games. Up front, Nik Antropov continues to have a hot hand with four goals and one assist over the last three games. Captain Mats Sundin had two goals and two assists in his last three games. In net, Vesa Toskala continues to find his groove, as he went 2-1 with a 1.68 GAA and .931 save percentage.

Black and Blue

Boston -- Patrice Bergeron remains on injured reserve with a concussion. Goaltender Manny Fernandez (knee, back), is back on injured reserve after a conditioning stint in AHL Providence, and could face season-ending surgery if his condition doesn’t improve soon. Tim Thomas, who suffered a groin strain last week also is on IR, but has been skating this week and could be back next week. Forward Shawn Thornton remains on injured reserve with a broken bone in his left foot, but also could return next week. Defenseman Bobby Allen is day-to-day with back spasms.

Buffalo -- The Sabres still are without Dmitri Kalinin (knee) and Teppo Numminen (heart surgery), who remain on injured reserve. They also are missing defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who is listed as day-to-day with a shoulder injury. WJR radio in Buffalo reported Tuesday that Kalinin and Tallinder could return to action sometime next week.

Montreal -- Goaltender Cristobal Huet is on injured reserve with a sore groin, but hopes to return Saturday. Forward Bryan Smolinski, who suffered a sprained right knee against Boston last Thursday, will be out up to six weeks; forward Steve Begin, who suffered a separated shoulder in the same game, will miss three weeks.

Ottawa -- Forward Patrick Eaves is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury and Anton Volchenkov is day-to-day with a broken finger.

Toronto -- Defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo (knee) still is on injured reserve, but could return to action this weekend.

The week ahead -- The Sabres welcome the Islanders tonight, the Bruins are in Atlanta and the Senators are at Carolina to face the Hurricanes.

Thursday, the Bruins host the Devils. The Canadiens are at Philadelphia and the Senators are in Pittsburgh.

Friday night, the Sabres head to Washington, while the Leafs are in Atlanta.

Saturday posts a full slate of games in the Northeast, highlighted by the Maple Leafs and Canadiens renewing their rivalry in Montreal. In other action, the Bruins face Columbus, the Sabres welcome Buffalo native Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks, and the Senators host the Thrashers.

On Tuesday, the Bruins and Senators hook up for a Northeast Division match in Boston, Toronto plays at Carolina and the Canadiens welcome in the Panthers.



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