He is a reluctant superstar, shy to engage with a public thirsting for the next hockey player worthy of worship on its beloved Maple Leafs.

But through one unforgettable two-week stretch this past May, Phil Kessel flirted with delivering so much to a fan base used to so little.

It was No. 81 of the Leafs who almost led his team to an unlikely first-round playoff upset over the Boston Bruins in the beleaguered franchise’s first post-season appearance in nearly a decade.

Without the third-period collapse that never will be forgotten by most who witnessed it and all who played in that fateful Game 7, Kessel was on his way to a third game-winning goal against the Bruins, the team that had drafted him and, amid much fanfare, dealt him to the Leafs.

The subsequent disintegration ruined that story line and stomped on the hearts of Leafs fans young and old, near and far. Whether inflated or not, Kessel’s performance in that series created budding optimism for the future of a team still building.

He may be American-born, but Kessel has taken to his Canadian surroundings and established roots as a superstar here in Toronto. The performance against the Bruins helped define it and an eight-year, $64-million contract extension signed on opening day of this season sealed it.

So, in a year in which the Blue Jays faltered in spectacular fashion, the Raptors did what they do and tennis star Milos Raonic moved well along his own path to greatness, Kessel emerged as the choice for the George Gross Toronto Sun Sportsman (or Sportsperson) Of The Year award.

In doing so, the 26-year-old Wisconsin native becomes the first male hockey player to claim the honour created in memory of the late George Gross, the founding sports editor of the Toronto Sun. The team’s leading scorer since he arrived here in September, 2009 after Brian Burke’s controversial trade with Boston, Kessel finally had an opportunity to show his stuff when it truly mattered.

That performance and the belief that the dynamic scorer is committed to thrive in Maple Leafs blue and white, prompted the team to ensure he will have the opportunity to prove it again by getting his name on a long-term contract rather than risk seeing him test free agency this summer.