It wasn't a happy return to Toronto for Phil Kessel, who did little on the ice and was booed when he did touch the puck.
TODD KOROL / TORONTO STAR
As it turned out, they booed him every time he touched the puck.
And maybe it hurt less because Phil Kessel had braced himself for the cold shower of jeers. Hours before the ex-Maple Leaf took the ice at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, he’d been asked what sort of reception he expected from a town that was once his. At the best of times during Kessel’s six seasons in Toronto, after all, the fans had worn his jersey and cheered his goals and embraced him as a favourite son. But then there was last season, when Kessel was a ringleader on a roster that played half-hearted hockey while cashing full-size pay cheques.
“I think there’ll be some boos, obviously,” Kessel said before Saturday’s game. “That’s always how it is, right?”
Um, wrong, actually. But that’s apparently the way Kessel sees it: Star players who leave the Leafs “always” get booed in the way he did on Saturday night, because Toronto’s crowd — the one that Kessel led his team in snubbing during last season’s infamous non-salute — is always happy to spew hate on a new enemy.
Let’s just say Kessel, age 28, has never been known for his studious grasp of hockey history. The man who once said he’d never heard of Frank Mahovlich — even though Mahovlich’s No. 27 hung in its honoured place above Kessel’s home ice for the entirity of his stay here — didn’t have it anywhere near right on Saturday night.
A chorus of boos isn’t always what greets prominent ex-Leafs in their Toronto return. In fact, it’s almost never what greets them.
Rifle through the list of star Maple Leafs who’ve returned to Toronto in the past handful of decades, and it’s not easy to find a hockey equivalent of a Vince Carter hate-fest among them. Mats Sundin wasn't booed here when he came back as a Canuck in 2009 — or, check that, he wasn't booed exclusively. Even if a good portion of the populace resented Sundin's stubborn refusal to waive his no-trade clause before he departed — and even if that resentment was at times expressed vocally — Sundin also got a rousing standing ovation that brought the stoic Swede to tears.
Wendel Clark wasn’t booed here when he came back as an Islander in 1995. The crowd let loose with an emotional standing O. Ditto Doug Gilmour, circa 1997.
Kessel, it should be noted, played here longer than Gilmour and scored 46 more regular-season goals than Gilmour as a Leaf. Heck, Kessel never missed a game as a member of the blue and white.
And maybe that’s part of the reason why it was suggested by some observers that Leafland would be volubly appreciative in its welcoming of No. 81. Another part: That the Kessel-less Leafs, who lost 4-0 to Kessel’s Pittsburgh Penguins, are bereft of scoring touch and own one win in their opening 10 games.
Maybe, it was posited, people would cheer Kessel to voice displeasure with an again-rebuilding organization that never put him a position to succeed here. Certainly there were some tokens of respect. There was a sign that read: “Welcome Back, Phil.” And while there wasn’t a video tribute from the club — once a Leafs standard, that’s a no-go in the world of Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello — there were fans still wearing Kessel jerseys that were not in any way defaced.
But if the fan base is upset that Kessel was dealt in July for piddling cents on the dollar because his poor work habits were deemed by management to be a fundamental and irreparable part of the problem — well, that sentiment wasn’t on display on Saturday.
History tells us it’s been on display for other athletes before in this city.
Dave Keon wasn’t booed here. The greatest player of the most recent Leafs dynasty was among a long list of players done wrong by Leafs owner Harold Ballard. And it was 36 Halloween nights ago, after Keon had spent half a decade in exile in the WHA, that the great No. 14 returned to Maple Leaf Gardens as a visitor. Keon, then 39, was honoured with a noisy ovation he called “one of the greatest moments of my career.” And after he scored a goal and assisted on the winner for the bottom-feeding Hartford Whalers, a scribe noted that Ballard had departed early from what was dubbed the Halloween Horror.
Frank Mahovlich wasn’t booed here. After the Big M scored a goal in his first Toronto appearance as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, this after he’d been dealt in an unpopular move the season after Toronto’s 1967 Stanley Cup, the great Star writer Milt Dunnell compared the raucous outpouring to the scene at Maple Leaf Gardens after Bill Barilko won the 1951 Stanley Cup on a famous overtime goal. In other words, the explosive skater — who some observers of a certain age have compared to Kessel —could not have received a louder welcome.
“He got the maximum,” Dunnell said. “That’s all it’s possible to get.”
Kessel, with his vast talents, had the chance to be one of those beloved greats, to exist in that glow for a lifetime. He was gifted riches and special treatment and ice time and opportunity. Toronto has an opinion about what he did with it all. His floating, often invisible performance on Saturday — zero points and one shot on goal — suggested, on its face, that not much has changed.
The Air Canada Centre booed him on Saturday, but contrary to Kessel’s assertion, that’s not how it always is. The evidence suggests you need to be a special kind of underachiever to turn this city against you.