Many of us wake up in the morning and just know that we need to get in the shower. Phil Kessel woke up one morning this week and knew where he wanted to play college hockey next year.
After wrestling with the conflict over playing for his hometown team of Wisconsin, or its chief rival, Minnesota, Kessel announced Friday afternoon that he was going with the latter.
“I just woke up one morning and decided that Minnesota is the place for me,” he said in a media conference call. “It’s probably the hardest decision I’ve made in my life so far, but I just felt that in my heart, [Minnesota] was the best fit for me. It’s a huge relief to have the decision made. I’m looking forward to the upcoming year.”
Kessel admitted that he faced enormous pressure to go with his hometown Badgers, from his friends who include former Badgers Bob and Ryan Suter, and future Badger Garrett Suter.
He said his parents, who live in Madison and are Badger season-ticket holders, supported his decision.
“My dad gave me the best advice when he said, ‘Go with your heart, your gut feeling.'”
Speculation centered on Kessel preferring Minnesota’s on-ice style that revolves around speed, quick passing and playmaking.
“Minnesota plays a more offensive style, but they are both great schools and both will have great teams next year. I just thought Minnesota would best fit my style of play.”
Kessel will join his friends and current USNTP teammates, goaltender Jeff Frazee and forward Ryan Stoa, on the Gopher roster.
“My friends played a big part. I always wanted to go where I’d have friends and Ryan and Jeff played a big part in it. They’re my good buddies.”
Rarely has a college hockey recruit dealt with as much scrutiny when making his choice. The low-key Kessel admitted it was a lot, though not difficult to handle.
“I don’t really like all the hoopla with the chants and the signs [at college arenas]. I just have to take it all in stride.”
Recently, Kessel called Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves and informed him that he would not play for his hometown team. He then dialed up Don Lucia’s number and told the head coach of Minnesota that he would be joining the Gophers’ already impressive 2005 recruiting class. He did not want to go into what was said in either conversation.
“I have a lot of respect for coach Eaves. That was the hardest call to make,” he said.
Kessel will wear a large “M” on his chest, rather than donning a cardinal and white jersey next season, a fact that will be a bitter pill to swallow for the fans in Madison.
“I expect some boos [at the Kohl Center], but what can I do? It wasn’t their decision, it was mine. It was a hard decision that had to be made.”
He also had to inform coaches at Boston College, Boston University and Michigan that he would not be playing for them.
“The last week has been one of the hardest weeks of my life.”
Kessel is the leading scorer for the U.S. Under-18 team with 30 goals and 28 assists in 31 games this season. The Red Line Report, an independent international scouting service, ranks the 6-foot, 185-pound 17-year-old number one among all players available for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
While attention has always been centered on him, he really burst onto the scene during the recent World Junior Championships where he scored four goals for Team USA, including a hat trick in a quarterfinal win over Sweden.
“He’s an outstanding talent, obviously,” said Kessel’s current coach, Ron Rolston of the Under-18 team. “He has excellent offensive ability, instincts and he reads the play very well. He has the ability to make the players around him better when he’s on the ice surface. I think all great players have that ability and he definitely does that for our team.
He definitely makes me a better coach for his ability to open games up and change a tight game into one that we’re leading by a couple of goals.”
Kessel also put to rest rumors that he considered taking the major junior route, saying that college hockey was what he always wanted to do. He also denied reports that he was going to Minnesota because his girlfriend is going there as well.
“She’s actually still a junior in high school right now.”
Minnesota head coach Don Lucia is prohibited from commenting on a recruit until he officially signs a national letter of intent in April.
Rest assured, Lucia woke up happy this morning.