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Knights’ Kessel set to become hockey’s all-time iron man

Amanda Kessel’s favorite person to beat in games is her older brother Phil.

It doesn’t matter for the three-time Olympian whether it’s cards or pingpong. Or board games. Or golf. She relishes the victories. Because there aren’t many.

“He’s just so competitive,” said Kessel, who has one gold and two silver medals with the U.S. women’s hockey team. “He’s never going to give someone an easy time or let anyone win.”

That drive is one of the reasons why Phil Kessel is on the verge of NHL history. The Golden Knights right wing has played in 988 consecutive games, one shy of defenseman Keith Yandle’s record.

He’ll tie Yandle on Monday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kessel can break the record Tuesday in San Jose.

It has taken him 4,739 days, 12 full seasons and an undeniable amount of determination to reach this point. Plus, a love of the game that’s lasted from his childhood skates at Capitol Ice Arena in Madison, Wisconsin, to now.

“Honestly, I just always play,” Kessel said. “I’m one of those guys that try playing no matter what. Even if I’m injured or whatever, I just like to play.”

Early scares

One of the remarkable things about Kessel’s streak is what he overcame at the start of his career.

He was diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2006, just three months into his rookie season with the Boston Bruins. Surgery allowed him to miss only 12 games. Kessel finished with 29 points, and won the Masterton Trophy for “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

“He bounced back from that so quickly,” Amanda Kessel said. “He’s just been tough since he was young and still has that in him today.”

Kessel still wasn’t a picture of perfect health when he came back. He missed time the following year with mononucleosis. He wasn’t available for the start of the 2009-10 season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

Kessel returned for the Maple Leafs on Nov. 3, 2009. He was 22 years old. He played 23:50 in Toronto’ 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, firing 10 shots on goal.

It didn’t seem like the start of something remarkable. It was. Kessel hasn’t missed a game since.

“I mean, he’s a legend,” Knights center Nicolas Roy said. “Playing that many games in a row, you can see how serious (he is) about the game. You have to prepare every game. You got to be ready for that many seasons in a row.”

The run

Kessel is 35 years old. A lot has happened in his life since his streak began.

He’s been traded — twice. He’s won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s become a father. Only a few things have stayed the same.

Kessel will show up to every game. He’ll generate offense. He’ll do things away from the puck that NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp said “kind of leaves you scratching your head.” He’ll also become a beloved figure in the locker room because he likes to joke around and doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Knights owner Bill Foley said when president of hockey operations George McPhee first approached Kessel about the celebration the team was planning for the record, Kessel said he didn’t want anything done. He didn’t want to be recognized.

“He really doesn’t like the attention,” Foley said. “It just shows you something about his character.”

The Knights are going ahead with a ceremony anyway. The NHL tradition for a player appearing in his 1,000th game is a pregame tribute and a gift of a special silver stick. Kessel has appeared in 1,068 in a row, counting the regular season and playoffs. It makes sense to honor him.

He’s about to be hockey’s equivalent to MLB’s Cal Ripken Jr. (2,632 consecutive games played), the NFL’s Brett Favre (297) and the NBA’s A.C. Green (1,192).

“I don’t know, once he breaks the record, if it will really every be beaten again,” Amanda Kessel said. “It’s really, really tough to do.”

How it happened

Kessel got to this point through a variety of factors.

He has played through injuries. He had hand surgery in July 2016 after winning his first Stanley Cup. He missed training camp last season with the Arizona Coyotes while recovering from a foot injury. The streak has been far from certain.

It was maintained in a memorable way March 8 in Detroit. Kessel and the Coyotes were in town for a game, but he was expecting the birth of his daughter, Kapri.

He played one shift, lasting 30 seconds, before hopping on a plane to go back home. Arizona coach Andre Tourigny said Kessel wanted to play the whole game. Tourigny pushed him to leave.

“For me, families come first,” Tourigny said the next day. “He was a little bit nervous and he was not (comfortable) to do that, but I think it was well worth it.”

Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said he believes Kessel’s playing style, specifically his legs and his smarts, have also helped him extend the streak. Defenseman Brayden McNabb said Kessel still “can move really well” despite being 17 years into his NHL career. That makes it easier to avoid hits.

Kessel is also constantly aware of his surroundings on the ice and can act accordingly.

“He’s not in harm’s way in certain areas that other guys might be,” Cassidy said. “That’s part of hockey IQ.”

Built to last

Kessel’s streak might last for a while.

He was never far behind Yandle before the defenseman’s healthy scratch April 2. No one is close to him. Carolina defenseman Brent Burns, 37, has played 684 consecutive games. There are no other active streaks of more than 500.

Doug Jarvis’ record had stood since 1987 before Yandle broke it Jan. 25. It’s going to take someone special to catch Kessel. That’s a testament to what he’s accomplished.

“It’s pretty inspiring,” Amanda Kessel said. “It’s helped me throughout my career. Realizing you’re never really going to be 100 percent. There’s always something you’re going to be working through.”

All of the aches and pains Phil Kessel has worked through has resulted in 399 goals, 957 points and two championships so far. He’s one of the most prolific American players in NHL history.

The record, once he has it, will show he was also one of the toughest. All he has to do is show up to the rink Monday and Tuesday, lace up his skates and do something he’s already done 988 times in a row twice more.

“I’ve been fortunate so far, I’ve been able to play a long time in this league,” Kessel said. “I just always try to play. … I love to play the game still.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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