The legends of NHL iron man Phil Kessel

Illustration by ESPN

Phil Kessel is set to play in his 990th consecutive game Tuesday night (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), meaning the Vegas Golden Knights winger will pass retired defenseman Keith Yandle to become the NHL's all-time iron man.

It's the latest, and perhaps greatest, moment in a career that's been equal parts eclectic and electric, historic and hysterical, with enough surreal milestones to make the 35-year-old hockey's answer to Forrest Gump.

He was the player picked last in a 2011 NHL All-Star Game fantasy draft, and the one called out by President Barack Obama as "a Stanley Cup champion" at a White House celebration.

He was the player who overcame testicular cancer as a rookie, played on two U.S. Olympic teams and used his wicked shot to score close to 400 goals in the NHL.

He's also the player whose attitude was questioned, whose conditioning was maligned and who once was accused by a Toronto columnist of visiting a hot dog vendor every afternoon -- a story debunked by fans who have passionately defended Kessel against such critics.

He's Phil Kessel: an enigma to some and a legend to others.

In an effort to better understand "Phil the Thrill" and how he became the NHL's iron man, we spoke with individuals connected to all five of his stops on the NHL: with the Boston Bruins (2006-09), Toronto Maple Leafs (2009-2015), Pittsburgh Penguins (2015-19, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups), Arizona Coyotes (2019-22) and the Golden Knights this season.

Kessel in Boston: 'He's always been a popular teammate'

Shane Hnidy was a defenseman for the Boston Bruins for a season and half, during Kessel's second and third NHL seasons. Hnidy is now a television analyst with the Vegas Golden Knights, where he reunited with Kessel this season.

If you had told me when I first met Phil that he would set the NHL's iron man record, I would have called you absolutely crazy. I would have said you are out of your mind. I would have taken whatever odds were on it at the time.

You still kind of shake your head. To play that many games in a row is near impossible. So all the respect in the world for what he's been able to do.

As a young player in Boston, Phil was talented. Extremely talented. You could see at that young age that he had that ability. I think he's a super-intelligent player that gets underrated for his hockey IQ. That speaks to his game streak: You can't play that long, be that successful and not put yourself in vulnerable situations if you don't have a high hockey IQ.

No, he's not the guy diving in front of shots. No one is going to claim he's a defensive specialist, but there are a lot of elite players that fall into that category. But he's also a guy who's not afraid to go into the corners. You don't put up the points that he does without going to certain areas of the ice where there are battles.

What guys like him and Keith Yandle have been able to do is staggering to me. Even if you purposely tried to stay away from injuries, there's a good chance that over 500 games you'd get one. You have to play through some stuff. I almost lost an eye once -- in practice. Freaky things happen all the time.

It was exciting to have him in Boston at that moment. The city embraced us. The team was starting to turn the corner, with guys like Phil and Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic. The 2008-09 team just missed the Presidents' Trophy and then lost in the second round to Carolina. Phil and I have talked about that being one of those teams where it felt like we could win the Stanley Cup but didn't.

In his rookie year, he had testicular cancer and kept it quiet. When it got into the media, he was upset about it because he's just a private guy. He was always that quiet guy. That was hard on him. I wasn't there for it, but the guys said he handled it with his humor. He barely missed any time.

I'm going to try to phrase this the right way: But at times, early on, he frustrated us veterans. Myself, Zdeno Chara, Glen Murray ... we'd talk about trying to get a rise out of him. I remember in the 2008 playoffs, we needed him to come. We tried to get him rah-rah'd up, and he wouldn't. We tried to find different ways to get a reaction out of him, and we couldn't. It's not his personality.

But he still scored some big goals. Then he scored 36 of them the next season. We finally figured, "OK, he's got his own motivation." You try to find ways. You try to set examples. But later in my career I realized that for certain guys, if it works for you, it works for you.

We had a couple of them like that. Tim Thomas was another. Now, he was a different dude. And he certainly didn't abide by today's standards of nutrition. But he stopped the puck and worked hard, and that's all you wanted. Because Phil was able to perform, to do what was needed of him, it was like, "Well, OK, whatever." But I will say that here in Vegas, he's in some of the best shape I've ever seen him in. He's motivated. He felt lost in Arizona.

I think sometimes he's misunderstood as aloof, but he does care. He wants to win. You've seen that in his career. He hasn't changed. There's this mystery about him, as this laid-back guy. And he is one. But it's all about in the room. He's always been a popular teammate. There are guys in today's game that pay too much attention to the noise, and he doesn't. He just wants to score goals and get points. You could see that as a young guy.

I was surprised when Boston traded him. He was a talented guy for them.

Kessel in Toronto: 'He's unapologetically himself'

James van Riemsdyk, a Philadelphia Flyers winger, followed in Kessel's footsteps with the U.S. national team development program and was his teammate on the Toronto Maple Leafs 2012-15.

He was always a mythical figure. When I was with the U.S. national development program, I came in the year after he left. He was with that 1987 [birth year] group that was legendary, not only with how many talented players they had but how many characters they had. My first world juniors I ever saw was in North Dakota. Phil was 16 or 17 years old, and he was just flying around, scoring goals.

The first time I met Phil was when his brother, Blake, brought a bunch of us to a Bruins afternoon game. After the game, we went to a Qdoba and Phil showed up eventually to join us. I guess he was on his entry-level contract and times were tough, but he picked up the tab.

He was in Toronto before I got there. He was just a complete character. He loves to stir the pot, making dry comments. It's good to have someone that will speak his mind in the room in certain scenarios. Those dialogues are really healthy and good.

Phil's the unintentionally funny guy. He's not trying to be funny, but he ends up being hilarious. It got to the point where my close friends would text me once in a while, and instead of asking how I was doing, they'd say, "Give me the latest Phil story."

He's a super-competitive guy. We played poker on the plane all the time. I remember him being middle of the road. Athletes in general tend to be bad card players because of that competitiveness, instead of using your brain and math. But we had some fun times.

Ultimately with Phil -- and I respect this about him -- he's unapologetically himself. He just did his thing and didn't get too wrapped up in the outside noise that you get playing in Toronto. It wasn't the fans. I think some of the stuff [about him] got covered [in the media] a little unfairly. Phil didn't let it bother him enough to go back against certain people. I'm sure he was aware of the perceptions of him, but he was a super-productive player when he was there and his numbers spoke for themselves.

He loved playing in Toronto. Loved that white-hot spotlight.

My favorite Phil Kessel story is when he was playing in Pittsburgh. It was the first game after he was traded from Toronto. My line's lining up against him on the opening draw. So just to f--- with him a little bit, I chop him on top of the laces. Not too hard. Maybe like 50%. And he looks over at me, doesn't smile, and he says, "James ... don't forget who made you a player in this league."

No one calls me James, either. He's the only guy that calls me James. It was priceless.

With this record, the biggest thing is that he's a gamer. I have this quote from Phil burned in my head that I've been thinking about a lot as he's come close to the record:

"I just love playin' the games, eh?"

[Editor's note: James van Riemsdyk does an impeccable Phil Kessel impression.]

I feel like that sums it up perfectly. He loves playing the game. He wouldn't have played this long, or wouldn't have been as successful, without that love.

Kessel in Pittsburgh: Cards in the Cup

Nick Bonino won two Stanley Cups with Kessel on the Pittsburgh Penguins, in 2015-16 and 2016-17, lining up next to him on the fabled HBK Line along with Carl Hagelin. He's now a center for the San Jose Sharks.

We both were traded to Pittsburgh in summer 2015. His was the bigger trade, I think.

I was excited to meet him. You'd just hear things around the league about what kind of character he was. They had that [HBO 24/7] documentary when he was in Toronto, and there was stuff from that everyone was talking about. Like him going, "Good one, Randy" to [Toronto coach Randy] Carlyle.

There's a reason everyone lights up when they talk about Phil Kessel. When he's in the room, guys rip on him and he rips on them, which I think is important in a good teammate. He wasn't closed off like he can be in interviews.

Unique. One of a kind. Great guy and a good friend.

My favorite story is probably the one with Pierre McGuire and the breath.

[Editor's note: In 2016 during the Eastern Conference finals, NBC Sports announcer Pierre McGuire had a postgame interview in which he asked Kessel "how's your breath?" McGuire meant to inquire about Kessel's conditioning after the forward played over 19 minutes against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Instead, Kessel thought it was a question about his hygiene and responded "it's not good, eh?"]

Phil came back into the room after that. He looked at us and just shook his head. He said, "Boys ... you're gonna get a kick out of this when it comes out." Like, he knew what was going to happen. So the next day, he had a bunch of Tic Tacs and gum piled high in his stall.

The line with him, me and [Hagelin] ... that was fun. The opportunity came about because Geno [Malkin] got hurt. It was one of those times in my career where it felt like everything we did was right and everything we shot went in, from Game 60 all the way through when we lifted the Cup.

Haggy was so fast and so smart and knew exactly where he needed to be. I just tried to get pucks to them and be responsible. I was so fortunate to play with Phil. He can shoot the puck like few can in this league. He's just got such a flex on his stick that he can snap it off, and he can do it in motion, too. I hadn't seen anyone come down the wing and shoot it in stride like he does. He's fast. When he gets a step on you, that's all he needs. And then he's shooting before the goalie is set.

The popularity of our line was a whirlwind. Something I hadn't experienced before. I imagine that's what it's like for Sid everywhere he goes, or these top guys. When you're producing and doing well, the fanfare comes with it. Especially in a city like Pittsburgh, which is so sports-crazed.

I played cards with him. I wouldn't play poker because he was so good at it. But we'd play a bunch of games on the plane. One thing I'll never forget: playing cards with Phil out of the Stanley Cup on the way back from San Jose. We set it up in the middle of the aisle between us. That was our card table. We were throwing our cards inside the Stanley Cup.

It's funny: I played with Andrew Cogliano, too, who had such a long consecutive games streak himself. I think every guy is different, but they both have a durability to them. Regardless of what was going on with Phil, you knew he was going to play. He wasn't taking a maintenance day. He was playing. OK, maybe not so much in practice, but you know that in the games, he was going to be there.

He's a gamer. He wanted to win, whatever he did. Whether it was cards or shooting hoops or playing hockey. You gotta have that drive if you want to play that many games in a row.

Kessel in Arizona: The veteran mentor

Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller was Kessel's teammate during Phil's three seasons with the Coyotes from 2019-20 to 2021-22 -- including a game on March 8, 2022, when Kessel played one 30-second shift against the Detroit Red Wings to keep his streak alive before hopping on a charter flight arranged by the team for the birth of his daughter, Kapri Mary Kessel.

Phil was an unbelievable teammate, on and off the ice. Someone that I loved playing with. Probably one of the best guys that I've ever played with. I definitely miss him.

When I first met him, he was just a normal guy. Loved to play golf, so one of the first days that we were together, we went out and played. That's when you can really get to know someone, on the golf course. And he was super-fun to golf with. It's nice because it's away from hockey and you're just talking about life and things of that nature.

He also loves to chirp, and he can back it up. He'll tell you he's a bad golfer. But he's very good. Really good putter. Good short game in general. His drives are good too, but if I was going to say one thing [is his best], I'd say putting. He's got soft hands.

He's a competitive guy, no matter if it's hockey or golf or cards on the plane, he wants to win. And if he does, he'll let everyone know about it.

It was awesome to have him on the Coyotes. He's a guy that's played in big games and played in Stanley Cup Finals and won Stanley Cups. So he knows what it's like. It was nice to pick his brain on some of the teams he's been on, why they won and things of that nature.

We all knew the situation [with his daughter's birth]. It was pretty crazy and awesome for the team to do that. Everyone kind of had an idea, but no one knew exactly what was going to happen. You didn't know when the baby was going to arrive. So he played one shift, got on a plane and he was back with us the next game. We all got him something for the kid.

Like with his streak, he wants to be a part of every game. He's definitely had injuries throughout his career that he's played through to get to that level. I hope he gets all the way there and holds that record for a long time.

It's a long season. There are tough days. But every time you come to the rink and see Phil, he puts a smile on your face. Every day was something new. I miss the laughs and the jokes. I miss playing with him. He cheers you up.

Kessel in Vegas: How hockey is (and isn't) like poker

Daniel Negreanu is a professional poker player who has won six World Series of Poker bracelets. He has played cards with Phil Kessel and now watches him as a fan of the Vegas Golden Knights.

The first time I met Phil was in Toronto at a mutual friend's house. A couple of guys on the Leafs loved playing poker, and I met him at a game inside that friend's house. Phil wanted to "test his skills." Me being a big hockey fan, I thought that was cool.

I knew about him before that night. Toronto media is very in your business. They go above and beyond trying to get the inside scoop, and sometimes they completely make s--- up -- like the hot dog thing, which wasn't even real. But I never experienced him as a person until then. And as I got to know him over the years, he's probably my most famous friend.

He's an easy-going guy. When you see him on camera doing interviews, he's kind of uncomfortable. He doesn't like it. That's why during the World Series of Poker, whenever he was there, I would bring my vlog camera out and put him on it and drive him crazy. He'd try to hide.

Once you get to know him, it makes sense that he's kind of streaky as a player. Mindset for him is incredibly important. When things are going badly, he sort of has a woe-is-me attitude. "Aw, man, puck isn't going in, eh? Puck's just not droppin', eh?" But in hockey, just like in poker, he's a competitor. He might not look like it, but he's a competitor.

He was at the World Series of Poker with me when Toronto traded him. I asked him where he was headed, and he said "Pittsburgh." I told him that you could think of worse places than playing with Crosby and Malkin. He said, "Yeah, not too bad, eh?"

I'm really hoping this works out for him in Vegas. It's a good opportunity. But he wanted people to know that he didn't come to Vegas to play poker. He's here to play hockey and to take it very seriously.

He was in a horrible situation in Arizona. At the trade deadline, he and everybody in the world thought he was going somewhere, but they didn't have anywhere to move him. Vegas was always in his sights, but they were up against the cap. But they needed a guy for the power play, and who else is a better fit than Phil Kessel, one of the best power-play guys in the NHL? So I was super-excited when he signed with the Knights. It was time to get another jersey with "Phil The Thrill" on the back.

When I first met him, I would have been surprised by him setting this record. But not as surprised as the average NHL fan.

When you play in Toronto, the media creates the narrative for you. So what's the narrative on Phil Kessel? He's fat. He likes to eat hot dogs. He doesn't care. He doesn't try. He doesn't play defense. And he doesn't even like hot dogs. The defense thing ... maybe in the regular season, he's not hitting. He's maybe coasting in a 4-1 game.

But watch him in the playoffs. Watch him in those Pittsburgh runs and tell me who was backchecking and playing really hard. And if you ask guys around him, when he's in the gym and under a squat rack, he's strong as f---. He's got a very strong lower body.

In poker, he likes to play a game called Pot Limit Omaha. That's his favorite. And that game has a lot of luck involved, so you can go on these really big swings were you can win or lose a lot in one session.

With poker, you have to be a little even-keeled. But he's very emotionally attached to swings. He'd say things like, "Bro, I had aces seven times in a row and the guy cracked, eh?" And I'm like, "We should focus on your game. Focus on the things you can control." He gets caught up in that stuff occasionally.

One year, he was sitting down in a tournament for Pot Limit Omaha at the World Series of Poker. I happened to roll up and I was seated at his table, playing for a world championship. I know how he plays. He's not a big bluffer. He's not going to outplay me or anything like that ... except on this one hand, when he went absolutely nuts on me and I didn't see it coming. He completely outplayed me and bluffed me, and everyone started laughing.

I was like, "What the hell, Phil? Where did you get that from?"

It was a high-level play. I didn't think he was capable of it. The joke was on me.