Ever since arriving in Pittsburgh a few seasons ago, the Penguins’ star forward Phil Kessel has shown all the signs of a distracting diva.
It has been said that Kessel doesn’t practice hard; he avoids contact on the ice; he doesn’t block shots; he cares more about his consecutive-games-played streak than he does about resting up and getting healthy for the playoffs. Hockey writers have described him as a pain in the ass. He sulks if he doesn’t get to play on the same line as star center Evgeni Malkin. He has been seen on the bench arguing with Malkin, and perhaps the biggest indictment of Kessel is that he’s simply uncoachable.
These sure are a lot of unsavory traits attributed to one hockey player. Yet, the fans have embraced Kessel and even celebrate his quirky and often surly disposition.
Here is footage from March of 2017 of Kessel losing his cool on the bench after the team trainer or equipment manager couldn’t fix his broken skate in a timely fashion.
I get it, emotions run high in the midst of an intense sporting event, and it’s not really all that uncommon for a player to get angry and throw a tantrum or two.
You would think something like that might get discussed and dissected at great length by the media and fans. However, it was quickly laughed off. In fact, I’ve seen a GIF or two of that footage altered to make it seem like Kessel was arguing about a hot dog (he came to Pittsburgh from Toronto with a reputation for not taking care of his body and for eating too many hot dogs).
Hilarious stuff, right?
If you’re a Steelers fan (you obviously are, and you’re probably wondering when I was going to get to them on this Steelers site), you remember the sideline meltdown of star receiver Antonio Brown in a Week-4 matchup against the Ravens last season; Brown was so upset following a play in which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger failed to get the football to the completely uncovered superstar, he tossed a Gatorade cooler in disgust.
The CBS game-day crew captured Brown’s tantrum on tape for all the world to see.
Again, these emotional outbursts happen all the time in professional sports, but instead of chalking them up as just that, Brown’s sideline antics were deemed more controversial and selfish than humorous.
Brown is your typical star receiver, in that he cares about his statistics and gets upset when he isn’t being involved enough.
Like Kessel, Brown once took great pride in a personal streak of his own, when he caught at least five passes for at least 50 yards in 35-straight games.
Brown’s streak often made news, but it was also often ridiculed.
Despite his superstar status and popularity, Brown has certainly been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism during the past few seasons, and I could never understand why a player like Kessel wasn’t receiving the same sort of backlash.
But then the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs in May, thus preventing them from winning a third-straight Stanley Cup. Not long after the Pens’ postseason exit, rumors surfaced that they were looking to unload Kessel via trade.
Why? Because Mike Sullivan, the Penguins’ head coach, has never been the greatest fan of Kessel, further cementing the player's reputation for being uncoachable.
Last summer, following the Penguins second-straight championship, Sullivan and Kessel reportedly tried to mend fences.
Today, on the heels of his first postseason exit as a Penguin, Kessel is reportedly on the trading block.
It’s amazing how much people (fans, coaches and even the media) are willing to overlook as long as championships are being won.
When championships are elusive, however, nothing is overlooked — not sideline temper tantrums, not Facebook Live posts from victorious playoff locker rooms, not even the skipping of voluntary OTAs.
Social media is considered a distraction.
Producing your own rap song is taboo.
Elaborate touchdown celebrations are frowned upon.
When the offensive coordinator tells someone to “shut the bleep up” (Todd Haley to either a player or another assistant coach during a game against the Colts last season), funny GIFs aren’t made by fans. Instead, it’s discussed ad nauseam for the better part of a week on sports-talk radio.
When a team wins multiple championships, distractions aren’t even a thing.
When a team hasn’t won a title in years, distractions are the only thing.
Off-field distractions aren’t the reason the Steelers haven’t won a Super Bowl in recent years (and it’s debatable whether most players are even thinking about anything but the task at hand when they’re in the throes of a football game).
But capturing a seventh Lombardi trophy sure would make “distractions” become a non-issue in the eyes of many in Steelers Nation.