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Farewell To A Formidable Foe

In case you missed the news yesterday under the far brighter lights of the playoffs or it actually being warm for a change, Ryan Kesler is likely to miss all of next season after hip resurfacing surgery. This will be Kesler’s third major surgery, his second on his hip, and not only will he miss out next year, you get the feeling this is likely it for him. While one of the Bryan brothers in tennis (it doesn’t matter which one, does it?) have returned after this procedure, and Andy Murray is going to try to, Kesler at 36 and to hockey seems a stretch. Maybe he can, I just wouldn’t bet on it.

If it is the end, it will be the end of pretty much our favorite non-Hawk player to write about. Kesler was strange in that way. There probably wasn’t anyone who pissed us off more, his constant jabbering and cheap shots along with some big goals. His “feud” with Andrew Ladd, which basically involved him getting the shit kicked out of him, calling Ladd a coward for that, and then refusing to fight Ladd after doing so was kind of the height of heel-dom. You were waiting for Bobby “The Brain” Heenan to escort him off the ice. You get the feeling Jonathan Toews would still knife him if given the chance. You knew exactly what Toews and the Hawks were in for in 2015, and you got every bit of it. Kesler’s bravado in what he thought was right, and how it came up empty once again. He was the biggest and probably as close to perfect hockey villain you’ll find in the modern game. He could make your blood boil.

And yet other than Jarome Iginla, there probably isn’t a player since we started this blog that we wanted on the Hawks more. When he asked out of Vancouver, we wrote furiously and regularly about all the ways the Hawks could get him and what it would take, perhaps in the vain hope that someone somewhere would see it and bring it to Stan. Or that Patrick Kane would demand he be brought here after their Team USA excursions together. Maybe it was just the relief of not having to deal with him in another jersey we sought. Maybe because the Hawks haven’t had anyone like him since…god who even knows? Kesler’s snarl, brashness, combined with his actual ability probably goes all the way back to Roenick here.

That’s the thing about Kesler. For all the bullshit he put out there, it wasn’t bullshit because he could actually play. Mostly the yapping and pest-ing is reserved for players who can’t do anything else. But Kesler wasn’t that. He’s got a Selke for a reason. Multiple 70+ point seasons on his resume. Nine 20-goal seasons.

And he did it when it mattered most. A rite of springtime in Vancouver was Kesler carrying that team when the Sedins decided it was too hard.. He was everywhere in 2011, the city of Nashville basically declared war on him and he just kept kicking their ass and making them like it, until his body gave out and no one was there to pick up the slack. He was the biggest threat in 2015 when Getzlaf and Perry waved a dismissive hand at proceedings and wouldn’t come inside the circles. He even flashed some of that old self in the Ducks’ last trip to the conference final, though by that point his body was giving up the ghost.

Hockey has so few trash-talkers-but-back-it-up types. Most of the yapping is done from the bench from guys who play less than 10 minutes. It’s why we think David Backes is such a joke. Andrew Shaw when he was here was only a Diet version of Kesler, and now is just Diet Backes. Brad Marchand picked up the torch. But are there too many more? Not really.

Kesler vs. Toews harkened back to an older time of hockey, and maybe we enjoyed it because Toews always came out on top. You probably still can’t leave Joel Otto and Mark Messier in a room together. It was that type of personal duel in a team game. Joe Thornton would probably like a word with Kesler, too. Hell, there’s a whole list that would scroll onto the floor. And they always had to line up right against each other in every faceoff they took in those series. The fatigue of each other was palpable, and that was before the series even started.

I remember all the crap. I remember all the cross-checks and slashes and punches to the back of the head. I also remember Kesler literally diving headfirst into Corey Perry’s asshole to score an empty-netter to seal the US’s win over Canada in 2010. I remember him picking a fight with the entire country. Or guaranteeing he would score on Luongo, which he did. I also remember him ultimately coming up short, which is another main theme of Kesler’s career. It all happened with Kesler.

But it wasn’t ever Kesler’s fault. If the Sedins had shown 75% of his hutzpah in 2011 the Canucks probably get one game in Boston. If Getzlaf hadn’t done his normal quit thing when things are hard, or if Freddie Andersen wasn’t Freddie Andersen, the Ducks probably win that series and go on to win the Cup, too.

But it makes Kesler a more poetic figure that after doing all that he could, and all that he shouldn’t, it was never quite enough. He pretty much did everything he could in every possible way, and it wasn’t enough. For those who never had him on their team, it probably makes you smile. But that part of you that wanted him on your side, you have to feel for him a little. The fact that he never quite got it, that he thought all his and his team’s physical pressure would win the day, that he could enforce his way to victory instead of play his way, gave him a delightful, tragic idiot shine.

Kesler will always have the last laugh on me. I had to buy an ex-girlfriend a Kesler USA jersey before the ’14 Olympics. I sincerely enjoyed doing so. And I nearly got one for myself.

Farewell, Ryan. I doubt a player will ever make me feel murderous rage and insane devotion at the same time as you did. I’ll miss that.

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