By now, you’ve likely heard tale of the greatest fight that never happened, when Ryan Kesler refused Joe Thornton’s challenge to drop the gloves just prior to puck drop in Sunday’s Western Conference Final opener. It’s quite the story, especially since it’s somewhat unbelievable: Kesler’s never been known to back down from a fight, and Thornton’s never been that eager to get into one. The roles Thornton and Kesler claim to have played in this exchange seem relatively out of character for both.
But “Out of character” is the central phrase here. Both guys have worked tirelessly to remodel reputations as players who disappear in the playoffs, seemingly due to wholly opposite character flaws. Thornton, famously focused but dispassionate, has been hard at work to turn up the aggression. Kesler, famously passionate but unfocused, is committed to a newfound composure. Now, one of them is on his way to his first ever Stanley Cup Final, and the victor will be the one that stays true to his new self.
Hockey fans today are debating whether Kesler should have accepted the challenge, but it’s not really much of a debate. In the past two years, Guillaume Desbiens, Jannik Hansen, and Alex Bolduc have all suffered injuries resulting from fights. What if Kesler hurts himself trading punches with Thornton? The Canucks can’t afford to lose him for the playoffs.
Heck, they can’t afford to lose him for five minutes. If Kesler fights, that’s anywhere from five to fifteen in the box (if he gets a misconduct, say). This means five to fifteen minutes that his team is without a defensive specialist, a faceoff specialist, or secondary scoring, really. Granted, he would be taking Joe Thornton with him, but the Sharks are much more equipped to handle five minutes without Joe Thornton than the Canucks are to be without Ryan Kesler.
Of course, these are all reasonable excuses, and Kesler’s never been known for his ability to think reasonably when things get intense. His history littered with plenty of chirpy, scrappy, undisciplined moments just like the one Thornton tried to draw him into. By now you probably know that his game improved drastically once he learned to control this aspect of his game — a restraint he flaunted by spurning Thornton’s offer. Had he given in, it would have been a sure sign of regression.
Meanwhile, Joe Thornton is trying to showcase his newfound edge by ripping a page from the playbook Kesler threw out. As a result, you get a bizarro world where Thornton is trying to aggravate Kesler, and Kesler is trying to resist the urge to chirp back.
Frankly, it’s weird. Have they undergone a body swap?
Consider the exchange they’ve had through the media since Kesler spilled the beans about the non-fight. “He wanted to fight me,” Kesler said, succinctly, without any name-calling or insinuations that Thornton was anything less than a gentleman.
Thornton, however, added that he wasn’t surprised Kesler said no. In short: he’s a coward.
“I’m not going to fight. Why would I want to sit in the box for five minutes? My job is to play between the whistles and I don’t deal with that stuff between the whistles.
If he wants to fight me, we play four times next year. He can fight me next year.
Thornton responded by being a twerp:
“Maybe Devin [Setoguchi] wants to. Maybe he [Kesler] will fight somebody less tough.”
And Kesler remained zen:
That’s probably his job to get under my skin, but that’s not going to happen. I’ve dealt with that all year. It’s not a part of my game anymore.
Kesler’s right. Thornton and the Sharks are intentionally trying to get under his skin. No doubt he’d recognize the tactic. He was once the master of it.
San Jose is well aware Kesler’s just coming off a lobotomy. They know all about Kesler’s newfound focus, and it stands to reason they don’t like it as much as we do in Vancouver. I would imagine they prefer the unfocused Kesler, who breaks sticks over the goal posts, insinuates that he had intercourse with your wife, and has more impact after whistles than between them.
So Joe Thornton, also in the midst of a personality overhaul, is trying to instigate a full-blown relapse.
As a result, we have the once kindly San Jose centre trying his darndest to out-Kesler Ryan Kesler, and once nasty Ryan Kesler gritting his teeth while he tries to out-Thornton Joe Thornton.
It will be interesting to see who blinks first.