The Kessel Run: Coyotes forward not slowing down during ironman streak

Coyotes forward Phil Kessel is preparing for his 885th consecutive game Friday night against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena, continuing his current ironman streak. (Photo by Alina Nelson/Cronkite News)

Kessel has passed former Chicago Blackhawks forward Steve Larmer for fifth all-time on the ironman streak standings, with the first game of his current stretch dating back to Nov. 3, 2009. (Photo by Alina Nelson/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Call it the Kessel Run.

No, Arizona Coyotes forward Phil Kessel isn’t flying the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars saga in 12 parsecs.

Kessel is soaring through the rankings of the most consecutive games played in National Hockey League history.

And he doesn’t need a spaceship to do it.
Kessel will play in his 885th straight game when the Coyotes take on the Vegas Golden Knights tonight at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“To play that many games in a row is quite an accomplishment,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “To be able to do that, a lot of things have to go your way. You got to be lucky, too. It’s a hell of a feat.”

Kessel passed former Chicago Blackhawks forward Steve Larmer for fifth all-time on the ironman streak standings, with the first game of his current stretch dating back to Nov. 3, 2009.

Splitting 15 seasons with Boston, Toronto, Pittsburgh and Arizona, the two-time Stanley Cup champion has scored at least 10 goals each year, and he’s not slowing down.

“It’s nice,” said Kessel, who has 11 points in his last 10 games. “When it’s going in, it’s a good feeling. Hopefully it continues and we can keep winning.”

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Kessel is chasing former Montreal Canadiens center Doug Jarvis, who holds the record for the most consecutive games played with 964, never missing a single regular season game in his 22-year NHL career.

Though the four-time Stanley Cup champion serves as the king of the ironman streak leaderboard, Jarvis, 66, did not really think about his streak while playing.

“I just played the games one at a time,” Jarvis said. “Before I knew, they added up to what they added up to. It didn’t gain any notoriety until maybe I passed someone up on the list like someone at 500 or 700. It would make a little bit of news. Then, for two or three years, you never even think about it. I wouldn’t think about it at all until the fellow I passed, which was Gary Unger. It then picked up at that point. I just loved to play the game and be in the game.”

During Jarvis’ tenure with the Canadiens, Washington Capitals and Hartford Whalers, there were moments where his streak was in jeopardy. He suffered ankle sprains, bone contusions, and headaches.

However, in a 1985 game at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, Jarvis got a concussion following a late-game, head-high hit that nearly sidelined him.

“I was knocked out, out cold at the end of the game,” Jarvis said. “I was checked out afterwards by the physician and they felt that there was no reason that I could not continue with the team on the road trip and play.”

Jarvis continued to play and reached the end of his career on October 10, 1987, when he retired in his final game against the New York Rangers.

In today’s league, Jarvis’ record might not have grown as large as it did, given the updated safety standards over 30 years later.

“In this day of age, it would be different,” said Jarvis, who is currently a senior advisor on the Vancouver Canucks. “The protocols would have had me out for a while with that concussion, which is the way it should be.”

More advanced medical care and training regiments have certainly aided present skaters in their preparation to play in games for longer stretches.

Kessel has been fortunate, not sustaining any major injuries or dry spells to keep him out of the lineup. Kessel played through a nagging groin ailment that affected his skating, but he’s recovered since.

“I haven’t changed anything,” said Kessel, who is in his second season with the Coyotes. “My body is feeling better than it did last year, so whenever your body feels good, it helps.”

Tocchet is well aware of Kessel’s tenacious mindset of finding time and space to light the lamp, but has noticed his increased ability to contribute offensively near the blue paint.

“He’s opportunistic,” said Tocchet, who has been behind the bench for 110 of Kessel’s 1,106 career games. “A lot of Phil’s goals this year have been in front of the net, whacking and hacking. That’s good to see. When Phil is doing that, that’s a good thing.”

More importantly, Kessel has stayed consistently healthy, skating roughly 18 minutes a game over the last five seasons and maintaining an elite goal-scoring role in the top-six.

Coyotes Chief Development Officer and former Coyotes captain Shane Doan has watched Kessel, and taken note of his skill set and durability, even when going toe-to-toe against him.

“You can’t stress enough how much Phil has had to play through pain,” said Doan, who never maintained any notable ironman streaks due to multiple injuries over his 21-year career. “You don’t play the game that long without having something hurt or something very sore, and for you being willing to battle through that. Lots of guys will try to battle through something, and they physically can’t, but to have the skill and capability of doing that is really impressive.”

What’s impressed Doan even more is Kessel’s uncanny scoring ability.

“He finds the right place at the right time and when you give him that opportunity, he buries it, and that’s something that is an incredible skill,” Doan said. “It’s so hard to score in the NHL. To do what he’s done for as long as he’s done it is absolutely incredible and such a testament to the type of player he is.”

Kessel’s elevated offensive production has helped boost the Coyotes to the fourth-place spot in the Honda West Division with a 7-3-0 record in the last ten games.

Just like the rest of the team, Kessel has thrived under pressure, especially in late-game scenarios. Kessel leads the team with ten third period goals, which are already the most in a season since Doan (10) and Antoine Vermette (11) in 2015-16.

“We’ve been getting the puck up and trying to get more shots on net, create more offense and it seems to be working right now,” Kessel said. “We’re right there and we’re battling. We just have to keep going.”

It won’t happen this season, but Kessel is 80 games away from surpassing Jarvis’ record of 964 games. However, ahead of Kessel are two active players in Florida Panthers defenseman and former Coyote Keith Yandle (907) and San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau (892).

Jarvis believes his ironman streak will be eventually broken by at least one of the trio, if not all of them.

“I think it will be, and I hope it is because for me, it means that these players stayed healthy through their careers,” Jarvis said. “I think that’s the big thing. There’s too many of my colleagues who come out with bad shoulders or hips or bad knees. I was fortunate to get through my career.

“I think it’s a credit to their endurance, their determination to play the game, and their consistency. I hope they are able to break it and keep it going through the rest of their careers.”

Michael Gutnick My-kull Gut-nick
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Michael Gutnick is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sports broadcast journalism and a minor in mathematics. He is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.