WILMINGTON -- Speed his trademark, Bruins rookie Phil Kessel continued his fast-forward recovery from cancer yesterday, rejoining his teammates for a workout for the first time since undergoing surgery last month for embryonal testicular carcinoma.
Kessel, 19, participated in the full hour-plus workout, abstaining only from a small number of contact drills per orders of the club's medical staff. He is not scheduled to play tonight when the Bruins face the Maple Leafs on Causeway Street, according to associate coach Marc Habscheid, and for now his return to the lineup remains open-ended, pending a final OK from Massachusetts General Hospital doctors and the club's coaching and training staff.
However, if it were left to the patient -- who just may require follow-up surgery to remove the smile from his face -- Kessel would be back in his No. 81 spoked-B sweater tonight, only a little more than three weeks after his Dec. 11 surgery.
"It's good to be back," said Kessel, back at his appointed locker, between P.J. Axelsson and Milan Jurcina, following the late-morning practice at Ristuccia Arena. "I feel good. Now it's up to the trainers and the coaching staff."
Habscheid, the team spokesman while head coach Dave Lewis made his way back from Steve Yzerman Night Tuesday in Detroit, offered no return date for Kessel. He said doctors must first clear Kessel for contact drills, then approve his game readiness. Assistant general manager Jeff Gorton later added that Kessel's status for now is day to day, pending the good-to-go edict from MGH doctors.
"I always believed them -- they are great doctors," said Kessel, who was assured soon after the surgery that he would be back skating in a couple of weeks.
"I think they know what they are talking about."
Kessel, who practiced in a red sweater, tantamount to a "DO NOT HIT" sign, teamed with a variety of wingers during the workout. Fellow forward Jeff Hoggan, recovering from an injured right shoulder, also wore a red sweater.
Five days after surgery to remove his right testicle, Kessel walked gingerly around the Garden following a ninth-floor news briefing, but yesterday he didn't show the slightest trace of soreness or compromised conditioning as he zipped around the ice.
"I missed it, because I love to play hockey," said Kessel, who exited the lineup with five goals and 9 points in his first 27 NHL games. "I watched some of the games, but it's hard to watch when you want to be out there playing but you can't."
Kessel returned to his family's home in Madison, Wis., not long after the surgery, the first time in four years, he said, that he was home for Christmas. He returned to Boston last week and began skating under the watchful eye of John Whitesides, the club's strength and conditioning coach, who yesterday had only the injured Hoggan under his thumb for some prepractice exercises.
As the house lights were turned up for the full workout, Kessel was the first of the "regulars" to take the ice, and he remained in perpetual motion for the entire practice, other than when Habscheid and assistant coach Doug Houda called a halt for chalk talk or to explain drills.
"To be honest, I tried not to make a big deal out of it -- for Phil's sake," said goalie Tim Thomas. "He knows we accept him back with open arms, and I don't think anyone wanted him to feel like we were out there, thinking, 'Oh, Phil's back,' and making it a big deal. That might have put some pressure on him, or make him feel funny. We just wanted to make it simple, and I think it was great. He looked fine, like he was happy to be back."
Veteran winger Glen Murray noted he was "totally shocked" upon hearing word of Kessel's illness three-plus weeks earlier.
"It just shows that things can happen very quickly, in the game and in life, and you just never know," said Murray. "I mean, I have three kids, and a lot of things can hit you when you just have no idea . . . I'm just glad he's happy and he's healthy and he's getting through it."
Vague about some details -- not sure of how many days he spent at home, and yet to open an e-mail box he figured would be loaded -- Kessel was certain about one thing. He said he is cured. He said he required no post-operative radiation, something often necessary in testicular cancer cases, and only needs to follow up with MGH doctors for physical exams and blood tests.
"I felt pretty good out there," said Kessel. "It takes you a little bit to get into it, but once you do, it's pretty easy."
The workout complete, workday done, Kessel pulled on a hooded sweat shirt and baggy jeans, and tugged a ballcap on his head. For the most part, he was conspicuous only by his teenage wardrobe.
"He's got that permanent smile on his face right now," said Murray. "And that's great."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.