Even at a young age, Pittsburgh Penguins’ star forward Phil Kessel always carried an innate ability to put the puck in the net.
Kessel can’t quite explain it, but as long as his team wins, he doesn’t mind.
It started early in Madison, Wisconsin, where Kessel once led the Madison Capitols to the 14-and-under national title game. He put up 286 points, scoring 176 goals in 86 games, and followed it up with a 158-point effort, netting 113 goals in 71 contests.
“I think I’ve been fortunate to be able to score from a young age,” Kessel said. “I think just over the years, you learn to develop your skills and kind of know where you like to go on goalies.”
Kessel credited the late Bob Suter, a member of the historic 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team, for his development.
“I had a great coach my whole life,” Kessel said. “I think he molded me into the player I am today. He has a lot to do with who I am as a player and a person.”
Suter, a fellow Madison native and the father of fellow NHL and Team USA star Ryan Suter, coached Kessel after he retired as a player.
“I had a great opportunity,” Kessel said. “Bob was a special person in my life. He kind of made me and molded me into the person that I am.
“He was always hard on me because he expected more of me, and I’m forever grateful for him and what he did for me.”
Kessel’s play with the Capitols helped propel him to the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Michigan. Success followed Kessel, who remains No. 1 in program history with 104 goals and 180 points from 2003-05.
Kessel, also tied for ninth all-time with 76 assists, is tied for second in single-season history with 52 goals and third with 98 points.
“I started my career there and they helped me where I was at,” said Kessel, whose sister Amanda starred on the 2014 U.S. Olympic women’s team. “I had some great coaches there and played with some great players. I was fortunate to be there.”
Kessel has also enjoyed international success, starting from his NTDP days when he helped Team USA capture its second U18 world championship in program history. Kessel, who tallied 21 goals and 43 points during 26 games for the U.S. National Junior Team, led all players with nine goals and 16 points in six games when the U.S. won gold in 2005.
“I enjoyed my time [at the NTDP] and I loved playing there,” said Kessel, who was also part of two Olympic Winter Games, helping Team USA win a silver medal in 2010.
“I have nothing but good things to say about [the NTDP]. It’s a great program for kids to play and it helps their development. You see the ranks today in the NHL and a lot of guys have played there.”
The NTDP and one year with the Minnesota Gophers helped Kessel reach the NHL, where he was selected No. 5 overall by the Boston Bruins. Now in his 10th season — and first with the Penguins after stints with the Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs — Kessel continues to perform as one of the most prolific scorers of the game, similar to his time as a youth in Madison and the NTDP.
In the previous five seasons, Kessel has scored more goals than any player in the league other than Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry. Kessel has at least 30 goals in five of his previous six full NHL seasons and is currently among the leading scorers on a Penguins’ team battling for a playoff spot.
“I just try to go out there and play my game,” Kessel said. “I don’t really think about that kind of stuff. I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team win.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.