In May, Mike Kesler stopped by the MiHockey offices to pick up copies of the magazine his son Ryan was featured in. MiHockey’s Stefan Kubus sat down with the former player, coach, and proud father to discuss watching Ryan’s journey to the NHL. It seemed only fitting that we share Mike’s story about he and his son’s journey through hockey in Michigan on Father’s Day.
By Stefan Kubus -
The continuous setbacks, the disappointment, and the misfortunes were nearly too crushing to bear for an aspiring teenage hockey player from Livonia.
About this time 14 years ago, Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler nearly walked away from the game that he’s become such a prominent part of now. It wasn’t until his father, Mike, sat him down for another father-son lecture that, unbeknownst to them at the time, would dramatically change everything.
The Keslers had shifted from a difficult time playing for Compuware – a coach ran two teams at the time, neglecting Ryan’s team and focusing on the Midget team instead – to another in a Little Caesars team filled parental coaching conflicts. Ryan attempted to go back to Compuware for his Bantam Minor season in the fall, only to find his old coach not giving him the time of day, according to Mike, because he left the team after the previous season. That meant it was back to Little Caesars, who had one slot remaining, but they cut him. And to make matters worse, Honeybaked held a 45-50 player tryout via invitation only, and Ryan wasn’t even invited.
“At this point, he was ready to quit hockey,” Mike Kesler said. “I looked him straight in the face and said, ”This is a decision you’ve got to make. I can’t tell you what to do or not do.’ I let him think about it and I said, ‘’You have two choices. Number one, you can leave the game, pick up something else, go on, enjoy life, and do whatever you want to do. But if you do that, all you do is prove that every one of those coaches was right in cutting you. Your other option is to go play wherever we can play, turn around, work twice as hard, and prove them all wrong.’ “
Two days went by, then Ryan approached his dad and said, “I’m going to play. I’m going to prove them all wrong.’”
And has he ever.
The 27-year-old from Livonia now stands as an alternate captain with the Vancouver Canucks, one year removed from a Frank J. Selke Trophy – awarded to the NHL’s best defensive forward – and a promising run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final that truly helped define Ryan’s leadership role with the club.
Mike Kesler, a former coach of 38 years, played up through college hockey at Colorado College, served as a board member for the Livonia Hockey Association, and ran several hockey camps in Livonia when Ryan was just beginning to learn the game. Mike has also done some scouting for the U.S. National Team Development Program in the past, but is currently scouting for KO Sports – which represents Ryan and other NHLers – and the Windsor Spitfires.
While he said he feels his knowledge and own involvement in the game for so long helped guide Ryan, one thing Mike never wished to do was coach his own son.
“I really didn’t want to coach him, because I think it’s tough because it’s a no-win situation. If you’re real tough on your son, people think you’re picking on him. If you let him go easy, well you get it easy because the coach is your dad.”
Ironically, the only year Mike did coach Ryan turned out to arguably be the most crucial season in his son’s youth hockey career.
“It just so happened that I got a call the next week after this all came down,” Mike said of his son having nowhere to play his Bantam Minor season. “It was a guy I knew, Chuck LeClair. He asked if I would come and coach the Little Caesars Bantam Major team. He said that Chris Coury (now a Belle Tire Midget AAA coach) said I could bring Ryan up with me if I wanted to. It was a scenario where the guy who had come in, came to the first two tryouts, and then the third tryout, he never showed. He didn’t call anybody, he just quit coaching. Coury was debating not having a team at that age group for a year. So, I came in while all the other AAA teams were done, and I picked the team out of five guys there as a nucleus, Ryan came in, and we had a lot of A/AA kids. Chris Coury said we wouldn’t win a game, but we ended up .500 on the year and played hard. Ryan ended up leading the team in scoring; he worked really hard.”
For Mike, one of the more humorous, memorable moments of Ryan’s youth hockey days came out of that season, and it also served him with a reminder of why he never wanted to coach his own son.
“At the start of the season, I said one rule to him – ‘Ryan, I’m not going to embarrass you, I’m not going to say anything to you. But in return, you’re not going to make any of your faces, gestures, or do anything like that.’ I turned at the board [in a practice], started drawing the drill, and I just had this funny feeling. I turned around and he here is [making a face]. I said, ‘Kesler, get off my frickin’ ice.’ and I kicked him off the ice. He went and got some money, made his phone call, and said, ‘Mom, will you come and pick me up? I don’t want to play for this [expletive].’ My wife, bless her soul, said, ‘Ryan, you’re going to have to work this out with your dad. You’re going to have to figure it out.’”
And from that point forward, they never had a problem like that again.
The true significance of that last-minute scramble to get on a team, and the bounce-back year it was for Ryan, wouldn’t be fully realized until the season ended.
“That year is when Andy and Jeff Helmuth – two guys that played in the OHL – were coaching Honeybaked. They knocked us out of the league playoffs, and I hardly got home and in the house when the phone rang. They asked Ryan to play for them the following year. That was with Lou Schmidt (founder of the Honeybaked AAA club), David Booth (Ryan’s teammate now in Vancouver), Brad Robbins (formerly of Miami University), Jamie Milam (formerly of Northern Michigan), and Chris Trick (formerly of Notre Dame). It was just an unbelievable team that formed.”
While the Helmuths certainly saw a strong potential in Ryan, Schmidt didn’t exactly agree. He felt that he wasn’t that good of a hockey player, but the Helmuths insisted that Ryan had the top-end talent to fit right in with the team, telling Schmidt that he had been the “thorn in our side” the previous season.
Come November, Schmidt went up to the Helmuths and said, “I was wrong. He’s the best kid on our team.”
From there, a career that almost never came to be, blossomed, beginning with the NTDP – a remarkable team that showcases the best young American-born hockey players in the country – and then to Ohio State University for a season before making the jump to the professional ranks.
He undoubtedly has a myriad of memories to choose from, but Mike said that Ryan making the Olympic team was one of his most fond memories in his son’s hockey career because of how much “blood, sweat, and tears he put into it.” Another was witnessing Ryan play in the NHL for the very first time.
Although the Kesler family missed Ryan’s NHL debut in Toronto on Nov. 24, 2003 – Ryan didn’t know if he was going to play or not until the last minute – they certainly were sure to catch his second game in Ottawa a couple nights later. Watching the game in Ottawa was the real eye-opener for Mike.
“We got in the rink, we’re sitting up there, I look out, and all of a sudden, here’s Ryan taking a draw against Jason Spezza, [Daniel] Alfredsson, and all those guys. All of a sudden, it just hit me. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, he’s in the NHL.’ “
In addition to the Ottawa road trip, Mike said he really enjoyed going to Toronto to watch Ryan play, as well.
“The one thing we really used to like is going to Toronto to play. One of the most memorable things was that he used to play on an all-star team called the Toronto Bulldogs. Half would be the top players out of the Toronto area, and half would be from the states. They had Ryan on the team, and he went up there and played with Rick Nash (now with the Columbus Blue Jackets) and all those guys.”
But, for Mike, atop those unforgettable times rests what is arguably the hockey world’s most breathtaking spectacle: the Stanley Cup Final.
“Last year, we went out for the Stanley Cup Final,” Mike started. “[Ryan] tore that hip flexor in the last game against the Sharks. To see what he went through and what he tried to do… he went to a special doctor, who would come out to the house to work on him. He got a massage, he tried to do everything to get that going. They would inject him before every game, and before the second and third periods just to get through the pain. I could see he wasn’t 100-percent.
“To learn afterwards, when they did the MRI and everything, they projected in Game 5 [against San Jose in the Western Conference Finals] that he tore the labrum muscle. To see the effort and everything he put out, I looked at my wife and said, ‘I don’t know how he’s doing this.’ He always was a tough kid with a real high threshold of pain, but to see him, what he did, and to see him afterwards, he felt he let us down as a family, he let his team down, he let the city down. I said, ‘Ryan, you played your heart out. You gave it everything that you had. I always told you that if you did that, you could always hold your head high.’ Some kids evaluate performances on goals, assists, and points. In the long run, he doesn’t care who scores, as long as they win, and that’s just the way it’s been.”