Turning over a new Leaf

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:21 AM ET

Phil Kessel "was pissed off."

At the Boston Bruins.

At coach Claude Julien.

And at the embarrassment of being banished to the press box as a healthy scratch for three games in a post-season grudge match against the rival Montreal Canadiens.

If ever there was an example of the rocky relationship between the Bruins braintrust and Kessel, this was it.

It was the first round of the 2008 playoffs and Julien, having seen his Bruins blown out of the Bell Centre in the opening game by the high-flying Habs, decided to dump Kessel from the lineup.

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Julien wanted more grit. He wanted better two-way play from his forwards. He was, in his own opinion, getting little of either from Kessel.

So, there was the young forward, sitting in the rafters, decked in a spiffy suit, feeling helpless as he watched his team muster just four goals during his three-game absence.

It gnawed away at his gut. How couldn't it?

"It was tough sitting out," Kessel admitted at the time. "It was very disappointing. It was a tough time for me."

And maybe, just maybe, it was the beginning of the end, at least in terms of the marriage between Kessel and the Bruins.

Kessel responded by scoring twice in his return to the lineup. How's that for making a statement?

Julien is one of the best bench bosses around, a no-nonsense guy who goes by the credo: "My way or the highway."

But The Benching, as it is now known, was something Kessel never forgot, according to those close to the young sniper.

Friday night the divorce became official when the Leafs acquired Kessel for a pair of first-round picks and one second rounder. In the aftermath, both the Bruins and Kessel felt they were better off without each other.

Suggesting that it was Kessel who wanted out of Boston, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli simply said: "At the end of the day, we want players who want to be here."

While not denying his disappointment with the Bruins situation, Kessel insists he did not demand to be moved.

"Never once did I ask to be traded," Kessel said last night. "I just think it was a mutual thing. It's best for both parties to move on."

The knock on Kessel coming out of Boston is that he was a "me-first" guy with an ego. If that's the case, keep this in mind: Leafs general manager Brian Burke knows all about egos. As the old saying goes: "It takes one to know one."

Still, there are those who don't buy into the accusations that Kessel is a selfish player both on the ice and in the dressing room.

"As far as him not being a good teammate, I've never seen that," said Leafs forward Wayne Primeau, who briefly played with Kessel in Boston.

Julien admits the odd wart would sprout up now and again in his relationship with Kessel, adding it is not uncommon for that to happen with a player of Kessel's stature.

Said Julien: "I'm not going to sugar coat this, he wasn't any different from a lot of players to deal with at times.

"We all know that Phil's grown up as a superstar player and those guys will always be a bigger bit of a challenge," Julien added. "But I can tell you honestly that there were no issues as far as him resisting. And there shouldn't have been because obviously his season proved that he was very successful."

Success and Phil Kessel always have gone hand and hand. But not always without a price.

Projected to be the top pick in the 2006 entry draft, Kessel, a gifted forward with the University of Minnesota, watched four teams pass him over before the Bruins took him fifth.

A year later, during an interview with Sun Media, Kessel admitted not understanding where all these so-called "issues" originated from, the ones brought up by his detractors prior to the draft.

"You've got to tune it out," he said. "People make that stuff up. If it's in the paper people believe it. Sometimes it's not true, sometimes it is true. With me, all the stuff was not true."

Having said that, he admitted he had not forgotten those who overlooked him.

Or those who bought into the rumours that questioned his maturity, his heart and his potential.

"I want to prove them wrong," Kessel said. "I want to show them that I should have been up there. Five was good but I should still have been up there. I was a good pick.

"I will prove them wrong."

Brian Burke is banking on it.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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