Kesler's personality defines Team USA
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- At some point, David Backes and U.S. teammate Ryan Kesler are going to have a chat about some of the things Kesler has whispered in his ears during the National Hockey League season.
Just not now.
Not with a semifinal match with Finland on Friday and the prospect of a trip to the gold-medal game Sunday in the offing.
But it is a measure of Kesler's considerable abilities to annoy and disrupt opposing players that Backes isn't joking about hashing out an incident that took place during the playoffs last year when Kesler brought Backes' wife into some end of period trash-talking.
"I think it was just 'Tell Kelly I say hi' or something like that at the end of a period. To me, he can tell me I'm stupid or slow or bad hockey player, but bring my wife into it and now we get personal. As I said then, if he wants to pick a fight with my wife, he's better off picking a fight with me," he said.
"We haven't had to discuss that quite yet, but I think maybe after the tournament is over, if we get one night to have a few drinks together, we'll have to get into that a little bit," Backes said.
In some ways, Kesler symbolizes the identity of this U.S. team as it continues to plow further into this Olympic tournament than many believed would be possible. When the Americans have been at their best in this tournament, they have crashed and banged and showed incredible patience and more than a little resilience.
A little sand, a little swagger.
A lot like Kesler himself.
U.S. coach Ron Wilson said early on that he had Kesler, who plays for the Vancouver Canucks, in the lineup so at least one guy on the team would get cheered. Well, after the U.S. dumped Canada 5-3 in the preliminary round, those days are gone. It was Kesler who, after trash-talking the Canadians throughout the game, put a pin in any comeback balloon with a nifty steal off Corey Perry to score an empty-net goal.
He figures there won't be many more cheers from the hometown fans in Vancouver during this tournament, and he might not hear them for a while after the tournament ends Sunday.
"Ah, probably not. Probably not for a couple of weeks. I'm all right with that," Kesler said Thursday. "I expected them to boo me, and they lived up to expectations. They're chirping me in the streets and they're chirping me on the ice. Gives me more motivation to do better. A couple more weeks they'll come back."
NHL Notebook: Ryan Kesler
A postscript on Kesler: The 25-year-old will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Philadelphia Flyers once tried to put an offer sheet in on Kesler, but that was matched by the Canucks.
Backes for one would have no problem if Kesler some day put on a Blues jersey.
"If he was going to be a Blue tomorrow, I'd be ecstatic. Not that I can make any suggestions to management, but he obviously plays hard every shift. He's in your face, plays a body, kills penalties; on the power play he's as skilled as anyone."
Of course, all that would assume that at some point Backes and Kesler clear up that little matter of Kesler having trash-talked Backes' wife.
-- Scott Burnside
Are the comments creative?
"No, they're not. They're rude," he said. "They're all the same. Go Canada Go. There's more. I won't get into detail. None of it's PG."
There is something about Kesler's personality that seems to lie somewhere between droll and slouchingly disinterested. A little edgy, maybe a little James Dean if James Dean hadn't shaved for a few days and needed dental work.
Those are the kinds of qualities that will be required if the Americans are going to close the deal in this tournament. Finland, for instance, plays a very similar style, hardworking, winning the battles, getting their defense involved. The Americans will need Kesler -- whom Wilson has referred to as a warrior and who likely has been the team's most consistently "on" player in this tournament -- at his best, even if the fans here won't be appreciating it.
"I think a lot of you guys know that playing against him is not one of the most enjoyable things to do. He's under your skin and always playing hard. It's nice to have him on our team and being beneficial for the U.S. He's one of those guys you hate to play against but like to have on your side," Backes said.
"I hated playing against him, that's for sure," added defenseman Erik Johnson, a teammate of Backes' on the St. Louis Blues. "He's a guy that I think you'd love to have on your team and hate to play against. I think on that empty-net goal against Canada you see the effort he brings, and that's not the only play, that's just kind of maybe what's to top it all off of how he's played so far. He's such a great guy to play with and a guy I'm not going to want to play against when this tournament ends," Johnson said.
Johnson recalls his rookie season, when he got into it with Kesler. "My rookie year, we'd jaw back and forth quite a bit. I'd give him some shots in front of the net. He's like, 'What are you doing, you little rookie?' Just stuff like that.
"He's always jawing out there for the most part. He was against Canada a lot, too. Like I said, he's a guy you love having on your team. He gives it his all every shift. A guy that's not so fun to play against."
Defenseman Jack Johnson skates with Kesler in the offseason and spent some time with Kesler at his lake house.
"Got to know him quite a bit, which is nice. I was really looking forward to having the chance to be able to play with him here," Johnson said.
Was he one of the few in the U.S. dressing room not to hate Kesler when he walked in the door?
"Oh no. he's a great guy. He does his job well, though," Johnson said. "We play hard against each other but never had any of those F-you matches or anything like that. We play hard against each other. I know what his role is."
That Kesler finds himself in the strange role of having ticked off the people who essentially pay his salary in the regular season in Vancouver isn't surprising to Johnson.
"Canadians are so protective of their hockey and everything, and the U.S. has never been fan favorites no matter where we go. Which we're all aware of, we're all very used to. I think we'd be disappointed if we went somewhere that they didn't care," Johnson said.
Kesler's Vancouver teammate, Canadian netminder Roberto Luongo, doesn't find it at all surprising that Kesler is reveling in being an American thorn in Canadians' sides.
"It's funny, especially knowing Ryan's personality, I bet you he loves that stuff. Guaranteed," Luongo said.
So, what was it like hanging out with Kesler at the lake?
"He's great. Real relaxed. Good guy to hang out with or playing some volleyball on the lake," Jack Johnson said. "He didn't yell at me when I screwed up."
But did he trash-talk the other team?
"Ah, couple of under-the-breath comments here and there, but they were pretty funny."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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