March 4, 2005
Gophers Get their Phil
Superstar recruit Phil Kessel to attend Minnesota

By Mike Eidelbes and Nate Ewell

Phil Kessel dons a Gopher hat and his Team USA jersey shortly after his announcement.

ANN ARBOR Phil Kessel told a crowd gathered here and reporters from across the continent waiting on a conference call what Minnesota coaches have hoped to hear for months: he will become a Golden Gopher in the fall.

Kessel, the immensely talented U.S. National Team Development player who has dazzled crowds on college campuses and at the World Junior Championship this year, is the most coveted college hockey recruit in years, if not ever.

"I came to the decision within the last couple days," Kessel said. "It's been real hard making a decision, but I felt like the Gophers fit me best. I woke up one morning and felt in my heart that Minnesota is the right fit for me."

The Gophers won a recruiting battle with Kessel's hometown team, the Wisconsin Badgers. Also beat out were Boston College, Boston University, Michigan, and, at least for the moment, the possibility of Kessel joining the major junior ranks.

Related Links
Chat with Phil: Today at 3:30 p.m. ET
INCH: The Next One
INCH Newsstand: Kessel stories

Kessel has dealt with tremendous attention over the past year, something that seems to have caught the somewhat quiet teenager off guard.

"You just take it in stride," he said. "I'm not the kind of person that likes all the hoopla. I don't like all the chants and signs like that. I like to keep it low-key."

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia can't comment on Kessel until he signs his National Letter of Intent during the April signing period. In the meantime, there's no shortage of coaches and scouts willing to sing the 17-year-old's praises.

"Phil is a special player, there's no question about that," said Ron Rolston, head coach of the U.S. Under-18 Team. "We've seen Phil continue to make great progress the past two seasons against elite competition. Phil is just one example of the great benefit USA Hockey's National Team Development Program has played in helping to continue to move hockey forward in our country."

Who's Next?

With Kessel committed, here are three uncommitted stars considering college hockey, all with 1989 birthdates. None are considered to be at Kessel's talent level yet, but the recruiting battles still figure to be fierce:

• Angelo Esposito (F, 1989, Shattuck-St. Mary's)

• Sam Gagne (F, 1989, Toronto Marlies midgets)

• Nick Petrecki (D, 1989, Capital District Selects-EJHL)

The major junior possibility still looms, as Kessel's OHL rights are held by the Saginaw Spirit. But he has always professed a desire to play college hockey, and last summer decided to accelerate his schooling – finishing high school in three years – in order to join the college ranks this fall.

"I thought college hockey was the best fit for me," Kessel said. "I have a lot of respect for Saginaw and their organization, but college hockey [is what] I've always wanted to play."

Saginaw general manager Bob Mancini, a former college player and coach, recognizes that things could always change, but seems resigned to the fact that Kessel will not play in the OHL.

"I don't think we were ever a real, true option he considered," Mancini said, "although we would have loved to have had him. You never know what's going to happen, but he's made it very clear that he intends to play college hockey, and you have to respect that."

In the end, Kessel's decision to attend Minnesota over Wisconsin was clearly a difficult one, and one he didn't take lightly.

"Minnesota plays more of an offensive style," he said. "They're both great schools and theyre both great teams.

"This decision was&the hardest decision I've ever made," he added. "The hardest phone call was definitely Coach Eaves last night."

Kessel will join a recruiting class at Minnesota that already includes No. 5 overall NHL draft pick Blake Wheeler, two U.S. NTDP teammates in Jeff Frazee and Ryan Stoa, and heralded Minnesota high school defenseman R.J. Anderson. They will join an already talented cast: the Gophers have had Inside College Hockey's third-ranked recruiting class each of the past two years, and none of the six Minnesota seniors graduating are stars.

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