Kessel the new Iron Man
by Andrew Podnieks|26 OCT 2022
Phil Kessel celebrates a goal during the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
The last time Phil Kessel missed an NHL game, general managers had not yet announced their rosters for the 2010 Olympics.

The last time Phil Kessel missed an NHL game, Canada’s Prime Minister was Stephen Harper, the U.S. President was Barack Obama, and the British Prime Minister was Gordon Brown.

The last time Phil Kessel missed an NHL game, John Tavares and Victor Hedman were rookies.

You get the idea. Kessel became the NHL’s all-time Iron Man on Tuesday night when he stepped onto the ice in San Jose to play his incredible 990th straight game. He surpassed Keith Yandle, whom he tied on Monday night in a home game against his old team the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team with which the streak began on 3 November 2009. He had missed the first month of the season with a shoulder injury, but when he returned, he returned for good.

Kessel put an exclamation mark on number 990 when he scored his 400th career goal late in the first period against James Reimer of the Sharks, a teammate from his days in Toronto. The previous night he thought he had scored 400 only to have it cancelled on an offside challenge.

“I always say I like to play and try to play no matter what,” Kessel said from the bench during an interview at the first TV timeout of the record-setting game. “I’ve had a fun time doing it. It’s a lot of games.”

When asked how many more games he had in him, Kessel replied in his usual, casual manner. “I don’t know. Until they tell me I have to quit. I’ll try to play as long as I can.”

Over the last 13 years, Kessel’s complete seasons have come in all shapes and sizes. He played the last 70 games of that 2009/10 season, to get the streak going, played all 82 games the next two seasons, then 48 in the lockout-shortened 2012/13, had a nice streak of six 82-game years in a row, and then had “full” seasons of 70 and 56 games during covid-19 before completing another 82 games last year.

Perhaps most improbable about the streak is his battle with cancer during his rookie season. Drafted 5th overall by Boston in 2006, he made the team as a 19-year-old but soon after left the Bruins when he wasn’t feeling well. He required surgery to treat testicular cancer but returned to the ice in excellent health. 

Kessel was traded to the Leafs after his third season in a blockbuster deal that saw the Bruins acquire a 1st- and 2nd-round draft choice in 2010, and a 1st in 2011. From there he was traded to Pittsburgh after almost six seasons, and he joined a team that was contending for the Stanley Cup, which the Penguins won in both 2016 and 2017. 

More recently, Kessel has played for Arizona, and now Vegas, so his streak reads as follows: 446 games with the Leafs, 328 with the Penguins, 208 with the Coyotes, and now 8 with the Golden Knights. But what often gets overlooked is his consistency and his elite results year in, year out. He has had 12, 20-goal seasons during his career, and fully half of those saw him eclipse 30 goals. Indeed, since he joined the league, his 400 career goals as of today is 7th-most during that time period, making him an elite scorer by any standard.

He’s not big and strong, and he’s not known for his “iron” physique, but Kessel has endured in the best and most demanding league in the world, and he has done so with a consistency never before seen in the NHL. His 70 game-winning goals sits 9th since 2006, but oddly he has a cumulative -148 stat in the plus/minus, second worst in the last 16 years behind only Rasmus Ristolainen.

Kessel had been a standout with the U.S. NTDP as a teen, and he has played at every level of IIHF competition with the United States, winning a gold medal with the U18 team in 2005. He has also played at three World Championships and two Olympics, including 2010 when the team won silver in Vancouver.

“I still like to play,” Kessel said on Monday night after game number 989. “It’s enjoyable being around my teammates. I've played a lot of games, and you always want to win. It's better when you win, and if we can do it tomorrow, it'd be great. … I always want to play. There's games you're going to miss throughout your career, but I've been fortunate so far."

“To play just one NHL game is a remarkable achievement,” said Yandle, now with the second-longest streak. “But to play every game going back 13 years is an unbelievable challenge, to stay in the lineup day in, day out…Congratulations to Phil Kessel on becoming the NHL’s Iron Man.”

These two are part of a group of only five men to have consecutive-game streaks of more than 900 games. The others are Doug Jarvis (964), Garry Unger (914), and Patrick Marleau (910).