SPOTLIGHT: KELSEY TESSIER

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

Kelsey Tessier prides himself in being a responsible two-way player with lots of grit and a penchant for doing little things such as finishing checks and getting up the opposition’s skin, a major reason he received the Seventh Player/Unsung Hero Award from the media as a rookie pro last season.

In his second pro go-around in Hartford, Tessier has again added a third major quality, mentor to two more of the smallest players on the Connecticut Whale. Just as he did with the Quebec Remparts, Tessier has been a kind of a guidance counselor to rookie forwards Ryan Bourque and Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, former teammates in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League who share an apartment in downtown Hartford a few floors from Tessier.

“When I came here, I didn’t know anybody, and he made me feel at home,” said Audy-Marchessault, who turns 21 on Dec. 27. “Ryan was still with the (New York) Rangers, and (Tessier) helped me get to know the guys. He gave me a little tour of Hartford, which was really nice of him. When I was with him, I felt more at home.”

“He’s like a big brother,” said Bourque, 20, whose older brother Chris, standout left wing of the Hershey Bears, has also provided plenty of guidance for years. “He’s always up in our apartment, or we’re in his, and we switch off cooking dinner for each other.”

Bourque then smiled and added, “He’s ‘Inspector Gadget.’ He can do everything. And he likes to do everything and claims he’s the best at everything, hair dresser, cook, whatever.”

Tessier is also serious at lending a helping hand.

“My first year (with the Remparts) was kind of hard in the adjustment to being the first year in juniors and in Canada,” recalled Bourque, a native of Boxford, Mass., and son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. “He was the captain and helped me out a ton. We were almost neighbors, and whenever I needed something, whether on or off the ice, he was always there. It’s when you notice how good of a teammate he is.

“And we played together quite a bit, and on the ice he helped me through thanks to his well-rounded game and the nicks and tricks he knew. Coming from the (United States) national program, you’re getting a great amount of experience playing-wise, but you’re not learning the same things you are in the pro game, and he was there to help me out, whether it was on the penalty kill or just in the defensive zone.

“Your first year of pros is obviously a lot of ups and downs and a grind. He went through it last season, so it’s all in front of him, and he’s helped us with that transition. If we’re really, really high and positive, he’ll kind of bring us down a bit, and if we’re low, he’ll pick us right up. In practice, he’s always there to help us out or challenge us, so it’s been good.”

The 21-year-old Tessier played 21/2 years with Audy-Marchessault and a half-season with Bourque before being traded to Moncton in his final year of juniors. After being Colorado’s fourth-round pick in 2008 but not signing with the Avalanche, Tessier signed with the then Hartford Wolf Pack in the summer of 2010, was invited to a prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., and impressed enough at right wing that he earned a spot on the AHL team in the fall. Then after switching back to his normal center position, the 5-foot-9, 177-pound Tessier, who has continually had to overcome the belief that he was too small, garnered plaudits for his non-stop, in-your-face play while getting 10 goals and 18 assists and being one of the team’s better penalty killers and faceoff men in 75 games.

Little has changed this season. Tessier is tied for fifth among players still on the Whale roster with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) and had his second two-goal game as a pro in a 3-2 loss at Providence on Sunday, scoring when he stole the puck on a clearing attempt by goalie Anton Khudobin and then on a nice drive to the net off a turnover.

“This year is kind of a continuation of how he played last season,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “He’s a pretty versatile guy who plays center and the wing and kills penalties for us. He doesn’t get a lot of minutes on the big offensive lines, but he does a pretty fair job of five-on-five play. And he’s a pretty competitive kid.”

And helpful to new/old teammates.

“They’re not shy of asking me questions about anything, going from how to cook to even playing hockey,” a smiling Tessier said after practice Thursday at the XL Center, where the Whale host Bridgeport and Providence on Friday and Saturday night. “I’m a big cook, so they ask me a lot about that. And I’m a big dresser. I love fashion.

“In the (dressing) room, they ask things like when you can ask for sticks, small stuff that’s different from juniors. But any question they have, I’m there for them. We’re like brothers.”

Including Wednesday night, when the trio watched the first episode of HBO’s “24/7: Road to the 2012 NHL Winter Classic” series leading to the fifth Winter Classic between the Rangers and Flyers at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. The one-hour show included footage of left wing Sean Avery while he was with the Whale for two games in October, including his shootout winner against Worcester on Oct. 29.

While visiting each other again, Tessier, Bourque and Audy-Marchessault learned a few things they didn’t know.

“We loved it, especially since we know the guys on top,” Tessier said. “And it was funny to see the Flyers’ Kevin Marshall, the guy I trained with all summer. It was entertaining, and HBO does such a great job with the pictures and documenting things. There were a few (vulgarities), but they’re not going to leave them out because they’re part of the game. But they’ve been real respectful of everyone.”

Audy-Marchessault said he enjoyed seeing a real look inside at an NHL dressing room that he didn’t get to see in the preseason. And he was especially impressed with the passion of Rangers coach John Tortorella.

“People who don’t know how it goes can see it from another perspective, so it sure is fun for them,” he said. “And for us hockey players, we just dream more about it. It’s so nice that you get goose bumps, so it was really fun to look at it.”

Bourque played several preseason games with the Rangers and was among the team’s final cuts, not joining the Whale until five days before the start of the AHL season.

“Tortorella didn’t hold anything back, but that’s him, straight to the core, and he’s not going to change the way he acts on HBO,” Bourque said. “I don’t know him as well as a lot of people do, but it showed how passionate and how true of a person he is. I experienced some of it in the exhibition games, but it was cool to see what he’s like in the trenches in the actual season. And even from Philadelphia’s side, it’s cool to see that in another organization and kind of compare and contrast the two.”

Tessier has had to change his role since joining the Wolf Pack. He was a top offensive threat with the Remparts, often playing 30 minutes, including on the power play, and racking up 50 more points in each of his four QMJHL seasons. That included getting 36 goals and 45 assists in 68 games in 2007-08, and helping win Moncton the QMJHL title and a spot in the Memorial Cup in 2009-10, when he finished second in playoff scoring with 14 goals and 16 assists in 21 games.

“My first year on the team was Tess’ last, and he was the best player, just unbelievable,” Audy-Marchessault said. “Now he’s even better defensively, so he’s a big factor for our team on the penalty kill and can do some good things offensively, as you could see last weekend. He has changed a little bit, but he has just got better.”

When Tessier arrived in Hartford, he had to adjust to quite different surroundings on and off the ice.

“The AHL is a man’s league, and I came in as a 20-year-old,” Tessier said. “In juniors, I was scoring goals, but I know to make it in the NHL, I’m going to have to be a two-way player who’s responsible as a third- or fourth-line guy. I don’t see myself being on the first line in the NHL. I’m a reality kind of guy, so I have to be that third-line guy who brings defense first and then have my offense come in afterwards.”

Though Tessier’s role on the ice might have changed, he remains into his wardrobe and being close with 20-year Mark LeBlanc, who continues to battle cancer in Moncton.

Tessier won the first Best Dressed Award in the QMJHL in 2010, and while doing a documentary on the league, someone showed up to do a spot with him in Moncton.

“It was pretty funny because the PR guy came up to me and said this fashion guy wanted to talk to me and do an interview because I’d won something,” Tessier recalled. “Back then, I had some Louis Vuitton shoes, but Hugo Boss is more my style.”

So, too, is keeping in touch with LeBlanc, a longtime Moncton hockey fan whose favorite player was – and remains – Tessier. They met through LeBlanc’s sister, Renelle, a longtime friend in high school. Two years ago, Tessier asked LeBlanc what number he wanted Tessier to wear. Tessier had always worn No. 9, but Leblanc requested a 0 be added. Tessier was more than happy to oblige, especially since Mark loves to play NHL video games because it includes Tessier.

“He always loved hockey and always liked to watch me play,” Tessier said of LeBlanc. “He gave me a couple of numbers, and I chose 90. Then when I got here, I asked if I could wear it again. They said no problem, so I kept 90.”

LeBlanc continues to have chemotherapy and keeps in constant contact with his favorite player.

“He’s doing really well,” Tessier said. “We’ve talked on the Internet for years, and he actually just out of surgery. He’s in a wheelchair, but he’s doing rehab and walking. I talked to him a few days ago, and his spirits are still up. He’s just a fighter, so it’s fun to see that.

“And he’s a big Tampa Bay fan, so he watches every Lightning game. And his Facebook profile is an action shot of me, so that’s fun. He always asks me how I’m doing and checks on my stats. I don’t ask many questions (about his condition). I don’t even want to know much about what he has. I’ll ask his parents when I go back (to Moncton), but I stay out of that stuff and talk more about hockey and video games that he loves, like the NHL video that he gets the day it comes out. He even trades with people so he can put me with Tampa Bay, so I just want to cheer him up whenever I can.”

Yes, you can continue to count Kelsey Tessier as a leader among little men with a mighty big heart.

ANOTHER WEEKEND SET AT HOME

The Whale returns home for another Friday-Saturday night set this weekend against the Sound Tigers and Bruins. It’s part of nine games in the final 12 in 2011 at the XL Center after the Whale started the season with 15 of 22 outings on the road.

With defenseman Tim Erixon having been recalled by the Rangers on Wednesday, Jared Nightingale will return to the Whale lineup after being a healthy scratch the last three games. Injured wing Mats Zuccarello missed a 3-0 victory and a 3-2 loss to Providence last Saturday and Sunday. The “Norwegian Hobbitt” also started the season with the Rangers but has eight goals and 14 assists to share the team scoring lead with Audy-Marchessault (8, 14). The next top scorers still with the Whale are center Kris Newbury (8, 7), right wing Andre Deveaux (6, 6), Tessier (4, 7) and defensemen Wade Redden (0, 11) and Brendan Bell (3, 7). Chad Johnson (8-4-2, 2.49 goals-against average, .913 save percentage, one shutout) and Cam Talbot (7-5-0, 2.89, .894, two shutouts) have shared the goaltending.

The Whale recalled right wing Jeff Prough from the Greenville Road Warriors of ECHL on Wednesday and signed center Brendan Connolly to a professional tryout contract on Thursday. Prough (12, 13 in 21 games) and Connolly (14, 11 in 20 games) were both in Whale camp this fall and share the team scoring lead with the Road Warriors.

And as fate would have it, they will be playing Friday night against defenseman Wes Cunningham, a former Greenville teammate who signed a PTO with the Sound Tigers on Thursday, along with goalie Nick Niedert, who had played one game with Elmira of the ECHL after spending most of the season with the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League. The Sound Tigers signed Cunningham and Niedert after the parent New York Islanders called up defenseman Calvin de Haan and goalie Kevin Poulin on emergency recall.

The Whale (15-8-1-2) has had problems with the pesky Sound Tigers (11-11-3-1), losing three of four meetings, the first two in a shootout and overtime after leading by two goals in each game. Then after a 3-2 victory on Bell’s goal with seven seconds left in overtime, the Whale lost 6-2 at Bridgeport on Nov. 25 in what equaled their worst defeat of the season.

So the Whale will have plenty of incentive in Round 5 of the GEICO Connecticut Cup, especially after their first defeat in four meetings with the Bruins on Sunday. The Sound Tigers, who have lost three in a row and are 1-4-1-1 since their last win over the Whale, have been led by left wings Tim Wallace (nine goals, 11 assists), Casey Cizikas (5, 11) and Justin DiBenedetto (9, 5) and centers Jeremy Colliton, the team captain, and David Ullstrom (12, 2). Wallace, Ullstrom and former Wolf Pack defenseman Dylan Reese are on recall to the Islanders, while left wing Michael Haley (1, 2 in 16 games) was reassigned to the Sound Tigers on Monday and has been practicing on the Sound Tigers’ top line with Colliton and Rhett Rakhshani, a member of the AHL All-Rookie Team last season. The goalies for coach and former Wolf Pack defensemen Brent Thompson are rookie Anders Nilsson (5-5-1, 2.99, .906) and Niedert.

The Bruins’ win Sunday was their first in regulation since they beat Worcester 3-2 on Nov. 13. Since then, the Bruins (10-15-1-2) are 2-6-0-2, with the only other victory being 2-1 over Manchester in a shootout on Friday night, when Michael Hutchinson (1-5-0, 2.83, .909) had 26 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped four of five shots in the skills competition for his only win of the season. Rookie right wing Carter Camper leads the Bruins in scoring with six goals and 12 assists, followed by centers Josh Hennessy (8, 7) and Zach Hamill (7, 7), right wing Jamie Tardif (7, 5) and rookie defenseman David Warsofsky (1, 11). Rugged left wing Lane MacDermid, son of former Hartford Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, has two goals, five assists and a team-high 67 penalty minutes, and Anton Khudobin (8-11-2, 3.02, .911, one shutout) has done most of the goaltending for the Bruins and had 29 saves in the win over the Whale on Sunday to end a personal 0-5-2 run. The NHL Bruins recalled Hamill on Tuesday on an emergency basis, and he had the primary assist on Rich Peverley’s game-winning goal in a 3-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, spoiling the head coaching debut of former Whalers defenseman John Stevens, who replaced fired Terry Murray on Monday.

The Whale’s only other game before their Christmas break is Dec. 21 against Adirondack, which is three points behind the Whale, who are at Bridgeport the day after Christmas.

To celebrate the holiday season, the Whale is offering a “Holiday Hat Trick” package of four upper-level tickets, four Whale winter hats and four Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards for $80, with upgrades available. To purchase a package, call the Whale ticket office at 860-728-3366.

College students can get discounted tickets to weekday games with the Whale’s “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday home games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket Office at the XL Center can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats.

Fans who purchase Whale season tickets, or a mini-plan, before Dec. 31 will be entered to win a round-trip excursion via limousine to a Rangers regular-season home game at Madison Square Garden. Current season seat holders and mini-plan-holders are also automatically entered.

WHALE-FALCONS FANS SERIES TICKETS AVAILABLE

Tickets for the next two games in the seven-game series between the Whale and Springfield Falcons are on sale.

Game 4 is on Jan. 7 in Hartford at 4 p.m., and Game 5 is Jan. 8 in Springfield at 12:30 p.m. Tickets for the final two games on Feb. 10 in Springfield at 5 p.m. and March 17 in Hartford at 4 p.m. will be available in the near future. Tickets must be purchased at least 10 days in advance of a game and include admission to the AHL game. A portion of ticket sales benefits Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps children of military families play hockey. The first three games raised about $600.

Tickets are available for games in Springfield by contacting Damon Markiewicz at dmarkiewicz@falconsahl.com. Advance tickets in Hartford are available by contacting Dussault at whalefalconsfangame@gmail.com. Information on all the games and the series is available at www.facebook.com/WhaleFalconsFanGame.

The Falcons fans have won 10-6, 14-4 and 8-4 in the inaugural such series originated by Seth Dussault of Easthampton, Mass. Matt Marychuk of Glastonbury created a Facebook page to see if there were any interested players, and he and Dussault managed the social media page as interest grew. They used the page to sign up fans to play and communicate between the players and managed to fill rosters for each fan team. The idea caught the attention of the Falcons and then Whale front office, leading to players of all ages and skill levels participating in the series.

And mark Jan. 22, 2012 on your calendar as that’s when the Whale’s annual Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, will be held from 4-7 p.m. at the XL Center. Whale players will serve dinner for the benefit of Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford. Adult tickets are $30, and tickets for children 12 and under are $20. To purchase tickets for the dinner, visit the table outside Section 101 at Whale games.

SAUER PLACED ON INJURED RESERVE

The Rangers have placed former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer on injured reserve because of a concussion, freeing a roster spot for left wing Mike Rupp, who hopes to return Saturday night at Phoenix after missing his 22nd game Thursday night in St. Louis because of surgery on his left knee.

Rupp has one goal in seven games after signing a three-year, $4.5 million contract in the offseason. Sauer has not been around the team since sustaining a concussion in a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 5 when he collided with rugged defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

All-Star defenseman Marc Staal, who has missed the entire season because of post-concussion symptoms, and left wing Wojtek Wolski (sports hernia surgery) also skated Thursday morning in non-contact jerseys. Staal said it was the hardest he’s skated in a “long time.” There’s still no timetable for his return, but he said the next step is to build back his strength in the weight room, where he’s already begun preliminary work with the strength coach Reg Grant.

Rookie defenseman Tim Erixon, recalled for the trip as insurance against injury, particularly because of Steve Eminger’s sore left arm after blocking a shot in 1-0 loss to San Jose on Tuesday night, also skated, but Tortorella said he will be returned to the Whale once the team comes back East provided there are no further injuries. Eminger said his arm was “not an issue…It’s sore but I’ll be ready.”

Entering Thursday night’s game, the Rangers had killed off 17 consecutive shorthanded situations, and one of new bodies helping the penalty kill is speedy rookie wing Carl Hagelin, a call-up from the Whale who scored one of the Rangers’ two shorthanded goals in a 4-1 victory at Buffalo last Saturday. Tortorella is gradually working Hagelin into shorthanded scenarios, but it’s evident that Hagelin’s speed up top puts opposing defensemen on their heels even when they still have the puck.

“That’s part of our penalty killing is not getting into a set forecheck against a team, it’s pressuring the puck right away,” Tortorella told the New York media after the morning skate Thursday. “And when you can do that with the legs that (Hagelin) has, and you keep the power play out of your end zone for 15, 20 seconds that’s huge.” … Farmington native Nick Bonino, a former standout center at Farmington High, Avon Old Farms and Boston University, scored with one second left in overtime to give the Syracuse Crunch a 3-2 victory over the Albany Devils on Wednesday night. It was Bonino’s second game since being reassigned by the Anaheim Ducks.

THOMAS RELEASED FROM TEAM CANADA

Right wing Christian Thomas, the son of NHL veteran Steve Thomas and the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2010, was among the final seven forwards released from Team Canada for the World Junior Championships on Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Calgary and Edmonton. Thomas has 13 goals and 24 assists in 21 games with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, where he was the Player of the Week and Canadian Hockey League Player of the Week two weeks ago.

Center J.T. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in June, who has 13 goals and 26 assists in 31 games with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, and Yale left wing Kenny Agostino, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fifth-round pick in 2010, are among the invitees to Team USA training camp Saturday through Dec. 23 at the Edgeworth Centre in Camrose, Alta. The team also will play three exhibition games, and the final 22-player roster is expected to be announced next Thursday.

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