Last year, the crack Phil Kessel regularly heard, from his coaches as well as his teammates, was to use a man's stick.
The joke was cutting. Only because it was true.
As a 19-year-old last season, Kessel's choice of weaponry was a Bauer with a lightweight junior shaft, the preferred and recommended stick for teenagers. Kessel is a creature of habit, and despite playing in the biggest and baddest of leagues last year, he had no plans of ditching the shaft, which gives him whip-like action on his release, for a men's version.
Even this season, the 20-year-old will keep the junior shaft. But it is one of the few remnants of youth that remains with the second-year pro. In virtually all other aspects of his life and game, Kessel is turning into a man.
"It's early. This is the only beginning," said Wade Arnott, Kessel's agent. "He's much more confident. He's much more mature than he was starting his first season only a year ago. Does he still have lots to learn? Does he have a long way to go to be a star player? Absolutely. But he's on track to be a star player in this game."
Last summer, Kessel arrived in Boston as a wide-eyed boy from Wisconsin who was slated to enter his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota. The No. 5 overall pick of the 2006 NHL draft was given no guarantees about making the big club. But after a solid training camp in which he showed flashes of offensive creativity that once had draft wonks comparing him with Sidney Crosby, Kessel was assured he wouldn't be spending the season in Providence.
But Rhode Island was exactly where he found himself Jan. 5 for the first of a two-game rehabilitation stint with Boston's AHL club. As if moving to a new city, living with another family, becoming a pro, and getting knocked on his rear by men nearly twice his age wasn't enough for a teenager to handle, Kessel wielded an even greater maturation tool.
"He had a life-altering experience last year," Arnott said of Kessel's 11-game absence because of testicular cancer. "That puts things in better perspective."
Like any hotshot teenager, Kessel always thought he was bulletproof, ready to fire pucks past goalies whether he was in his hometown of Madison with his bantam team, in Ann Arbor, Mich., with the National Team Development Program, or in Minneapolis with the Golden Gophers.
Cancer, coupled with the tear-your-hair-out season of a mere 35 wins, prompted Kessel to treat this summer as his personal launching pad from adolescence to adulthood. Kessel dropped the junk food (one former coach said he could get the forward to do anything he asked for a bag of Skittles). He worked out in Madison, and was grinding away with strength and conditioning coach John Whitesides while the Bruins' rookies - some of them actually older than Kessel - did their thing at Ristuccia Arena during the organization's inaugural development camp.
"He had more time this summer," said Arnott, referring to some of Kessel's previous offseason commitments, such as attending USA Hockey's junior evaluation camp and the NHL draft. "All those events take time away from training. He had very limited summers the past three years. This summer, he really didn't have a lot to focus on simply other than training for this season. It was a much quieter and more focused summer."
For the start of training camp, Kessel arrived looking leaner, having wiped out the traces of rookie chubbiness. Kessel, who was often winded by the end of his shifts last year, breezed through practices and games, showing good pace and dynamic offensive skills.
Kessel got some looks at left wing last season, earning some top-line shifts with Marc Savard and Glen Murray. But the natural center played most of the season in the middle of the ice.
During the preseason, Kessel played one game at center. But at least for the start of the regular season, Kessel will be on the right wing. One of his signature moves is to carry the puck from zone to zone, putting defenders back on their skates. He prefers to curl toward the right when speeding through the neutral zone, and coach Claude Julien likes the speed he brings to the wing.
"We have, to a certain extent, a right to expect some things from him because he is an NHL player," Julien said. "But we still have to understand that he's a young hockey player. There are a lot of things he wants and needs to work at. We have to work with him on all different areas to help improve his overall game. But we understand his skill level is extremely high. He has the potential to be a real good player in this league. Nonetheless, he's still young and he still has some things that we need to work on in certain areas of his game to make him better."
In five preseason games, Kessel led the Bruins with 4 points (two goals) and 17 shots, taking every opportunity to attack the net ferociously. He will most likely start tonight's opener against the Dallas Stars alongside P.J. Axelsson and David Krejci on the third line, and will be part of the team's No. 2 power-play unit.
"I feel like I can help the team win a lot more this year in all aspects and help win hockey games," said Kessel, who completed his rookie season with an 11-18 -29 line in 70 games. "That's what I'm here to do - try to win."
Kessel, who turned 20 Tuesday, should be a junior in college. But he's committed himself to being a man this year, having said goodbye to the family that hosted him in a Boston suburb last season and moving into his own downtown property.
It is partly Kessel's potential that team management, hamstrung by salary-cap issues from making big-time offseason upgrades for 2006-07, is banking on in 2007-08.
With most of last year's season-ending roster returning, the hope is that Kessel blows past the next checkpoints on his development curve, giving the Bruins the goal-scoring spark they desperately need.
"You have more confidence coming back your second year," said Patrice Bergeron, once a teenage rookie himself. "You know you can play in the league. You know how you did. You know you can improve, and that's what he's doing right now. He's playing great. You can see he has confidence with the puck. He keeps it. He doesn't just get rid of it right away. He doesn't panic.
"He's obviously a great player."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.