The Boston Bruins are stretching at center ice when Phil Kessel ups and skates away, into the faceoff circle, where a teammate feeds him a pass that he one-times with authority into the far side of the unguarded net. The veterans chuckle at the sight and one of them shouts from the pack, chiding Kessel that he might save that laser for later, this being the morning skate when no one's keeping score.
Kessel bares his toothy smile in acknowledgment and continues, undeterred. Another pass comes and he fires, then again and again. And when the session has ended he still shoots, tinkers, lingers, becomes the last skater off the ice, and then only after coach Dave Lewis shouts from the bench that it's time to wrap things up. Easy for him to say.
If the rink has always been Kessel's refuge, his artist's canvas, it's these days twice the more. There's no such thing as too much hockey when you're 19 years old, an NHL rookie and about five weeks removed from a sudden and sinister reminder of your own mortality.
Feeling fatigued and unsure of the reason, Kessel visited a doctor in early December. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which affects one out of every 250 males, most between the ages of 15 and 40. Lance Armstrong went on to win seven Tours de France after undergoing treatment. Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell overcame the disease, former Phillie John Kruk, too. The cure rate is well above 90 percent so long as the cancer hasn't spread, as it did in the case of former Bears running back Brian Piccolo, subject of the movie "Brian's Song."
Everything you need to know about Kessel's devotion to hockey was contained in his response to the diagnosis. He played in Boston's Dec. 9 game against New Jersey with the knowledge he was scheduled for surgery on the 11th.
Word of Kessel's circumstance spread rapidly throughout hockey circles. E-mails and calls of support began pouring in, including one from Sabres winger Drew Stafford. The two were U.S. teammates at last year's World Junior Championships. Stafford's father, Gord, coaches the girls hockey team at Shattuck-St. Mary's prep in Faribault, Minn., where Kessel's sister, Amanda, is a heralded freshman.
"Anytime you hear news like that you pray for the guy, pray for his health, hope his family is doing all right," Stafford said. "I gave him a call, left him a message, just wishing him the best, saying I was praying for him. In a situation like that hockey kind of takes a back seat to everything."
Less than a month after surgery, in which the cancer was removed, Kessel reported to Providence of the AHL on a conditioning assignment. Two games later he rejoined the Bruins, a return to normalcy meaningful to his teammates, his foes and himself.
"He's young, he brings that energy," Bruins center Brad Boyes said. "It's good to see that. Maybe going through what he has, you learn to enjoy every minute you can, every opportunity you have, every second you're out on the ice playing this game."
"It just shows how much passion he has and how much he loves the game," Stafford said. "A guy like that, hockey's his life, it's his identity. But it's a very serious situation, so for him to come back shows his passion and his character."
Kessel yearns to put the episode behind him. He offered curt responses on the topic after the skate, admitted he had tired of the questions, the constant reminders. He didn't hurry back for a grilling. He hurried back for the hockey, produced the first two-goal game of his career in a 6-3 loss to the Sabres on Wednesday night in HSBC Arena.
"You realize when you're not playing how much you miss it," he said. "It's good to be back."