Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Maturing Road of Ryan Kesler

By Larry Wigge

Pardon the interruption.

Ryan Kesler's amazing streak of scoring -- that included 41 goals and 32 assists in the regular season and seven goals and 12 assists in the playoffs -- could only be slowed down by a offseason hip surgery.

Bottom line: Only Ryan Kesler could stop Kesler, as you will see.

After missing the first five games this season, the 28-year-old veteran center from Livonia, Mich., is starting to heat it up again. Coming in a game at St. Louis January 12, Kesler was on a nine-goal, 13-assist record in his last 23 games.

Getting healthier. Getting stronger. Kesler is once again getting his 'A' game.

Take it from Nashville coach Barry Trotz, Kesler can be unstoppable in the Western Conference Finals.

"Naturally, you want to shut down the Sedins twin when you play Vancouver," Trotz said. "We used Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to shut them down. But Kesler's line was killing us.

"No matter what we did, he continued to score on us. So, we went with Weber and Suter against Kesler. Not even our two best shut down defenders could stop him."

To think, the 6-2, 202-pound center was just a third line checking center. He won the Frank J. Selke Award for top defensive forward in 2011 and finished runner-up on several other occasions.

Not until his fourth season did Kesler emerge for 21, 26 and 25 goals.

Four summers ago, he went back home to Michigan and decided he needed to work on it. He was a good player at that point, but to get to the next level, he believed he needed to fine-tune his shot. At his offseason home in West Bloomfield, Kesler set up shop in his garage with a shooting target and rarely took a day off.

"He literally has taken 100 to 200 shots a day every summer for the last three years," his father said. "He's really improved his shot."

During the offseason, he's practiced on to RapidShot (a high-end shooting training system).

There were other adjustments for Kesler.

At the conclusion of last season, which ended with another second-round exit against Chicago, GM Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault sat down with Kesler and teammate Alex Burrows. The message: Enough with the yapping on the ice.

Still it wasn't until Kesler heard from Makayala, his three-year old daughter, that caused her daddy to see the light.

No more yapping. Play to the end of the play. Stay focused on the play.

"That’s what I thought about in the summer," Kesler explained. "Me breaking my stick and getting pissed off, chirping on the ice, it was kind of: What would your kids think of you? What would my daughter think of the way I was acting?"

No parent wants his child to lash out in anger or behave disrespectfully. So Makayla probably wouldn’t approve of her dad smashing his stick at the Canucks bench, or berating referees or yelling at opponents until he looked like a clown and became more distracted than they were.

So, dad grew up.

"It's all about maturing," Kesler said about last year exit meetings. "I didn't take it in the wrong way at all; they want me to become a better player, a better leader every year. That was a big step for me to kind of leave that part of my game behind and focus on other parts of my game.

"I came into this league being a defensive specialist that got under other guys' skins. I think I just grew out of it and I'm just focusing on my game more. When you play whistle to whistle, it's a lot easier to play the game. The biggest reason why I changed is I was hurting the team. My play wasn’t where it needed to be."

A better shot during the offseason and a better human being during the season. Smart thinking.

The turning point to Kesler's career came in June of 2007, when Bobby Clarke, then the GM of the Philadelphia Flyers, shocked the rest of the league by signing Kesler to a one-year, $1.75 million restricted free-agent offer sheet. The total seemed outrageous for a guy who had just 2, 10 and 6 goals in his first three seasons with the Canucks.

"Bobby Clarke did me a favor," Kesler said. "That contract he signed me to motivated me as a person and player. I was glad the Canucks matched the offer sheet. It made me challenged myself to be a better player in Vancouver ... and that's just what I needed."

Voila! Power forward. Great wheels. And not just X, but X, Y and Z as a complete package.

Hard work has never been a problem for Kesler, who brings a Midwestern work ethic that was nurtured at home by his dad, Mike, a former Colorado College forward. Mike Kesler coaches a Junior B hockey when he's not working as a project manager for Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Linda Kesler, Ryan's mom, owns her own shop in Detroit. That's where the hard work came from.

Ryan's work ethic then grew with the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, then in one year at Ohio State University before being selected by the Canucks with the 23rd pick of the 2003 Entry Draft.

The ABC's of Ryan Kesler's development started when he was six and he attended Mike's hockey school in Livonia each summer from then until he was 17. 

"I'd be on the ice for three hours a day during the hockey school and the first hour was power skating," says Kesler, who started skating at age four. "In the winter, we had a backyard rink, so it was skating, skating and more skating. My dad helped me fine-tune it."

But no player, not even Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby has had an obstacle to overcome to make him stronger as a person to get to the NHL For Kesler, it came when he was 13-14.

"I got cut from every Triple A team I tried out for," Ryan admitted. "Luckily, my dad, who was coaching a bantam team in Livonia, gave me a chance to play for him. It was against guys who were at least a year older than me. It was tough, but playing against those guys made me tougher."

The U.S. Development Program and Ohio State were the next big steps. But Kesler's biggest confidence builder in his young career came in 2002, when Ryan helped the U.S. World Junior team win the told medal in Helsinki, Finland, as Kesler scored the tying goal against Canada and was chosen the tournament's Most Valuable Player.

It was in the genes. It was hard work and listening to his daughter.

That has made Ryan Kesler what he is today.

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