For once, most of us knew exactly how it felt to be a professional athlete.

Friday night, before a televised audience, former Bruin Phil Kessel was the last player chosen to play in a game. He sat there, keeping on a brave face, while the names of more than 40 other NHL players were called.

This wasn’t the humiliation of being the last player selected for the schoolyard kickball game. After all, Kessel was still sitting among a collection of the game’s best players.

Yet we can only imagine how the 23-year old really felt as he sat there by himself waiting for his name to be called.

And so it goes for Maple Leafs forward, the only player who somehow has to fight off embarrassment after being named an All-Star. The league did its best to mitigate the emotional damage: he was given $20,000 (to donate to charity) and a car for going last. But the hockey talk in Toronto was all about Kessel being shunned by his fellow All-Stars.

Part of a conspiracy, perhaps?

“A lot of people from the outside enjoyed watching a Toronto Maple Leaf sitting in there all by himself,” said former NHL tough guy Nick Kypreos, now a commentator for Rogers Sportsnet in Canada.

We’re not sure this was an anti-Leafs conspiracy, but it’s not too much of a stretch to point to Friday night as evidence that Kessel is not well loved by his peers. There were always rumors when he was with Boston, murmurings that no one shed a tear when the news of his departure broke.

Two years ago, he led the Bruins with 36 goals at age 21.

When a player that young scores that many goals he usually is quickly locked up to a long-term deal, becoming the type of player a franchise is built around.

Instead, Kessel was shipped north of the border before the next season. Rumors swirled in Boston that the Bruins were never going to keep Kessel, that he wasn’t a fit for the Claude Julien system of defensive hockey.

It was a brilliant move by Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. The Bruins got two first-round picks from the Leafs — one of which brought Tyler Seguin to town as the No. 2 pick in 2010 draft.

The other is in the 2011 draft, and right now the Leafs are in 26th place in the NHL. That could mean another top-five pick for the Bruins, who at the least now have an extra first-round pick to deal at the trade deadline if they’re looking for scoring help to replace the injured Marc Savard.

Meantime Kessel, the gift that keeps on giving to Bruins fans, is mired in a seven-game scoreless stretch and had to deal with questions about being the NHL’s first-ever “Mr. Irrelevant.”

He’s in the second year of a five-year, $27 million contract with the Leafs and has scored 49 goals in that time. Not bad.

He’s also a minus-27 wearing a Toronto uniform, further proof that Kessel is a one-way player. And that one-way does not include many deep forays into the defensive zone and very few detours into the corners.

Nothing about the NHL has come easy for the kid who made hockey look so easy skating for the U.S. national team. Somehow, he has become a polarizing figure in the sport, a player surrounded by people who either love him – or don’t quite love him as much.

His current general manager, Brian Burke, thought Friday night was a fiasco. Burke thinks the mere concept of a “final pick” creates too negative a situation for an All-Star weekend.

Kessel should have spent the weekend celebrating his first-ever All-Star selection. Instead, we’re left to wonder if there really is a conspiracy against a player who’s been criticized as being far more interested in personal stats than the success of the team.

And all we can do is wonder, because we’ve never been NHL All-Stars.

Yet most of us have been picked last for a game at some point in our lives. And, despite efforts to laugh it off, we know that it’s never a good feeling to wonder if anyone really wants you.

 

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.