Hype won't faze Kessel

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

Unlike the greeting Steven Stamkos received upon arriving in Tampa 17 months ago, Phil Kessel's face was not seen splashed all over Toronto-area billboards yesterday.

But even if there are those who do already consider Kessel a "saviour" of the local hockey team heading into his expected Maple Leafs debut tonight, you get the impression this is one kid who will keep it all in perspective.

It is easy to understand why.

Just ask yourself: How many NHLers, let alone a teenager of 19, have had to deal with being diagnosed with testicular cancer the way Kessel did when he received the shocking news in 2006, his rookie season?

After having survived such a life hurdle, carrying the burden of a city's expectations, as unfair as that might be, likely will not rattle Kessel like it might have prior to his bout with the potentially deadly disease.

"Obviously, when that type of thing happens, you learn a lot about yourself," Kessel said yesterday. "You get stronger from it."

Now in his early 20s, Kessel, having already beaten cancer in his young life, is well beyond his years, at least when it comes to his view of the world.

"I feel a lot older," he chuckled. "Hey, I'm not old by any means. But I do feel older in the sense of the experiences I've been through.

"It's a lot more than a normal 22-year-old whose been through college just having fun."

Kessel is believed to have passed his final medical examination yesterday, which would clear the way for his Maple Leaf coming-out party against Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight. Barring a setback, the Leafs are expected to make that news official at today's morning skate.

Expectations are huge on Kessel, especially after Leafs general manager Brian Burke coughed up two first-round picks and a second rounder to the Boston Bruins for him.

Now, given the Leafs horrific start, there are concerns the Bruins will land the No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 draft thanks to Toronto.

Burke's argument -- a legitimate one -- is that there are no guarantees any player selected with those picks will score 36 goals in a season before his 23rd birthday, which Kessel did a year ago.

Of course, that won't keep closed-minded observers from dumping on Kessel if he gets off to a slow start, even though it was Burke -- not Kessel -- who made the trade.

"I'm not worried about it," Kessel said. "I'm just looking forward to (playing).

"I'm just going to go out there having fun."

Keep in mind, too: Kessel has been out for six months since undergoing shoulder surgery. With no real training camp under his belt, there will be rust.

Stamkos, for one, knows all about unrealistic expectations.

Picked first overall in the 2008 draft, the Markham native was on Tampa billboards long before he ever laced up with the Lightning for the first time.

The team even set up a web site dedicated to him just days after the draft.

In that regard, Stamkos understands what Kessel is going through, the feeling of having all eyes focused directly on you.

"There's no way of not hearing about it or reading about it," Stamkos said yesterday. "But, to be honest, it didn't really bother me that much. When you get on the ice, you don't really think about it."

Phil Kessel plans on giving it his all. No one, he says, puts more pressure on Phil Kessel than Phil Kessel.

But when you've been through a cancer scare, you realize that life-and-death situations usually occur in a hospital room, not a hockey rink.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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