BOISE, Idaho – In hockey, there are certain players that transcend the numbers you see on a stat sheet. They can be called various things: grinders, locker room guys, team-first players, or simply, that guy. Their presence on a squad is immeasurable, but oftentimes necessary for a team to get over the hump and into the deep stages of the postseason.
I began covering the Idaho Steelheads for The Sin Bin back in October of 2017. Due to prior obligations, I didn’t get to attend my first hockey game as a member of #TeamSinBin until late November, when Idaho hosted Tulsa for a three-game set.
Two things stuck out to me during those three games. One, Tulsa netminder Jake Hildebrand played out of his mind on Friday night (Dec. 1, 2017), stopping 46 of 47 shots in the 4-1 victory. And two, Steelheads defender Eric Sweetman popping Oilers winger Kale Kessy with a high body check that knocked the power forward to the ice.
In my first series covering pro hockey, I didn’t recognize Kessy to be that guy for Tulsa — no memorable hits, no fights, and two losses out of three games for the Oilers against the Steelheads that week. And, with the Oilers finishing fifth out of seven in the Mountain Division and missing the playoffs that year, I didn’t consider him to be much of a game-changer at all.
Kess Comes to The Gem State
If you had told me Kessy would end up with Idaho after the 2017-18 season had concluded, I would have been skeptical. Kessy had been with Tulsa for two seasons at that point, and with the budding rivalry between the two clubs, I couldn’t see him joining a division foe in the 2018 offseason. Impressive of a physical presence as he was, it just didn’t seem likely to me he’d don an Idaho sweater for 2018-19.
Then came the Dallas Stars Training Camp. Held right here in Boise, Dallas held their NHL preseason camp in the City of Trees for the first time on September 14-16, 2018. I had received a tip from a Sin Bin cohort that Kessy was going to be signing with the Steelies that coming Monday. When I ran into Idaho Head Coach Neil Graham at the Stars’ Saturday practice session, our exchange spoke volumes in its brevity:
“Good to see you again, coach. Hey, I heard you guys signed Kale Kessy.”
“…who told you that?”
“Oh, a colleague from The Sin Bin…”
“Well…I guess we’ll see on Monday.”
The announcement of Kessy joining the Steelheads did indeed occur that Monday, September 18. The press release stated that in 2017-18, he’d played 52 games for the Oilers, netting 13 goals and 18 assists for 31 points total and 239 penalty minutes. He had also appeared in 16 AHL games between Manitoba and Cleveland, with one goal and three assists. The stats showed a left winger capable of scoring, playmaking, and someone not afraid to fight. Little did I know, Kessy was going to be that guy for the Steelheads in 2018-19.
The AHL Comes Calling & “The Kessy Effect”
Since earning a PTO with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles (February 21), Kessy seems to be that guy at the next level as well. In his first game donning an Eagles sweater (Feb. 23 against Ontario), Reign winger Bokondji Imama ran one of Colorado’s skaters to earn himself a boarding call at 1:54 of the first period. Kessy took immediate chagrin to Imama’s actions, throwing down his gloves and squaring up with the Montreal native before trading punches with the opposing left winger. Kessy fought Imama again in the third period to earn an ejection and 24 total penalty minutes on the evening.
Colorado ended up losing 2-0 in Kessy’s first game with the club. But, the fire shown in Kessy’s play must have spread to his teammates, as the Eagles proceeded to go on a nine-game winning streak from February 26 to March 16. Their win streak gave Colorado a surge from 58 to 70 points, creating a nine-point buffer between them and fifth place Tuscon in the Pacific Division. As of March 17, San Jose, San Diego, and Colorado were all tied with 70 points as the second, third, and fourth teams in the Pacific playoff race.
So, aside from the loss to Ontario (and a 9-0 drubbing from San Jose on March 17), Colorado has rode the winning wave of “The Kessy Effect” to a 9-2-0 record since his late February debut. In the ECHL this year, Idaho is 22-7-3 (.688) with the fourth round, 2011 NHL Draft pick in the lineup. In 32 games without Kessy, the Steelies have managed a slightly below average 15-15-2 (.469).
The Steelheads take the good and the bad with Kessy on the squad. His talent has earned him not only the recent call-up with Colorado, but also a PTO with the Manitoba Moose on October 3 to start the AHL season (on the roster for eight games while suiting up for one). However, with his skill player enforcement and tough-guy antics, Kessy has been suspended three times this season with a three-game (Nov. 3) one-game (Jan. 2), and ten-game (Jan. 24) suspensions to his credit.
And so it goes with a power forward of Kessy’s caliber. Aside from all the stats provided, one particular set of games remains etched in my mind as to why he’s worth having on the ice for the Steelies. As Idaho hosted Toledo back in January, Kessy showcased his dominant style of play against a depleted Toledo squad that had enforcer Ben Storm out with an injury and bruiser Bryan Moore serving a one-game suspension.
Idaho took that first game, 4-2.
As Moore returned in the second of three games, Kessy immediately got under the right winger’s skin. Right at the 3:30 mark of the first period, Moore was being ejected for a match penalty for kicking Kessy in the center-ice faceoff circle. Cue an ejection and another suspension for Moore, this time for four games instead of just one.
Idaho won that second game 4-3 in a shootout.
The piece de resistance of the three games came in the third and final match. After leveling a Walleye skater into his own bench five minutes in, Kessy had to then play the role of enforcer, as Toledo forward Hunter Smith plastered Idaho defenseman Nolan Gluchowski in the corner at 9:30 of the first period. Kessy dropped his gloves, grabbed Smith, shook him, and then…nothing. Smith had no desire to fight, and Kessy went to the penalty box for two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Kessy then ran roughshod over the Walleye for the remainder of the game. At one point, he implored the entire Toledo bench to fight him (not in so many words…Kessy’s language was a little more colorful than my toned-down description). The Walleye bench was intimidated, wanting no part of the madness the Shaunavon, Saskatchewan native brought to the ice. With no warrior to rise up and challenge Kessy, Toledo lacked the killer instinct and fortitude to snatch a Saturday night victory in Boise.
Idaho swept Toledo in their three-game set with a 5-3 victory that evening.
Don’t call it a coincidence — “The Kessy Effect” is real. And, in my opinion, Idaho doesn’t go far into the postseason without number 24 in a Steelheads uniform. Idaho needs him skating alongside captain A.J. White, protecting him from opposing headhunters. They need him patrolling the ice, seeking an opportunity to shift momentum in the Steelheads favor — be it with a hit, a fight, or maybe even a goal or assist.
He’s just…that guy.
C.C. Hawkley serves as ECHL Editor, Idaho Steelheads correspondent, and host of the “In The Corners” podcast for The Sin Bin. Follow his work right here on TheSinBin.net and on Twitter (@SinBinIdaho)!