Feeling Minnesota: Kessel calls Gophers "best fit"

Prized recruit chooses Minnesota over hometown Badgers

Phil Kessel made it official Friday afternoon: the native son will play college hockey one state to the west.

Kessel, one of the highest regarded young hockey players in the world, had many ties to his hometown Madison and the University of Wisconsin. But in the end the "best fit" was Minnesota, Kessel said during a teleconference from Ann Arbor, Mich., where he has played for the National Team Development Program.

"I came to the decision the last couple days here…" Kessel said. "I woke up one morning, in my heart I felt like Minnesota was the best place for me."

"There's always pressure to stay in Madison," Kessel said. "It was real hard. This decision was probably the hardest decision I've made during my life right now."

At 6-foot, 185-pound prospect with exceptional speed and vision on the ice, Kessel is not expected to spend much time in the Twin Cities before professional hockey comes calling. Kessel, who leads the NTDP Under-18 team with 66 points in 33 games, is expected to be on of the top picks in the 2006 NHL Draft.

But for now Kessel has chosen college hockey over opportunities to play at the Major Junior level, and, yes, he has chosen the Gophers over finalist Wisconsin and contenders Michigan, Boston College and Boston University.

"It just came down to the point right in like the last couple days where [I] started calling the coaches," Kessel said. "Then it came down to Wisconsin and Minnesota. Minnesota was the best fit for me so I decided to go there."

"The hardest phone call was definitely to Coach (Mike)Eaves last night," Kessel said. "I have a lot of respect for him. The University of Wisconsin is a great school. It just wasn't the right fit for me."

Kessel acknowledged that at least one difficult call remained. He had not yet spoken to Bob Suter, one of his hockey mentors. Prior to landing with NTDP, Kessel had come of age playing for Suter's Madison Capitals AAA youth teams.

"Bob's coached me since I was so young," Kessel said. "That was probably a huge pull because I had a lot of respect for them but it comes down to what's the best decision for me. Minnesota was it."

Suter himself was a star at Wisconsin. His son Ryan was a standout for the Badgers for one season before signing with the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League last August. Another son, Garrett, will join the Badgers in the fall.

"I have the utmost respect for Bob and Ryan and Garrett," Kessel said. "They've been with me forever. It just had to be done. I had to make the decision to go to Minnesota… think it's going to be a tough conversation. I think they'll feel that whatever is best for you is the best thing. I'm hoping that that's what they think."

Kessel was asked about a number of factors – from style of play to facilities to the pull of friends and family and teammates – during his conversation with reporters Friday. But he consistently went back to the same theme. Minnesota simply fit him best.

"Minnesota plays a more offensive style of play," Kessel answered one query. "They are both great schools and they both are going to be great teams next year but I just thought Minnesota would best fit me and my style of play."

Kessel said the practice facilities weren't "that important but it played a little factor." The Badgers often practice at the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum, since the Kohl Center houses men's and women's basketball home games, in addition to those of men's and women's hockey. The Gophers, on the other hand, have an area specifically for men's hockey.

Kessel had a chance to play at Mariucci Arena Feb. 19, when the NTDP U-18 played an exhibition with the Gophers. Kessel tallied two goals and two assists in that game and scored two goals in an exhibition against Michigan a week later.

"If you look at his points against Division I teams this year at the college level, he may even be leading the nation for points-per game," NTDP U-18 coach Ron Rolston said. "He's been able to do it against all competition, whether it's international, Division I, right through the junior ranks."

Kessel grew up in Madison and his family holds Badger hockey season tickets. But the next time Kessel steps foot in the Kohl Center, he will be wearing the uniform of Wisconsin's most heated adversary, the Gophers.

"It (coming back to Wisconsin in a Minnesota jersey) will be hard but what can you do?" Kessel said. "You've got to decide what's best for you and you've got to go with it."

Kessel does not expect a warm greeting when he does visits the Kohl Center next season.

"I expect some boos but what can you do?" he said. "It is not them who had to make the decision. It was me. It was me and it had to be made."

In addition to drawing attention from the whole of college hockey, Kessel was recently drafted by Saginaw (Mich.) of the Ontario Hockey League, a Major Junior hockey league.

Kessel, though, had his heart set on playing college hockey.

"I grew up watching college hockey since I was young and the WCHA," he said. "I just thought that would be the best fit for me."

Though the uncertainty swirling around the NHL could affect his decision to turn professional down the road, Kessel acknowledged that he may not be around long on the college level.

"If you get the opportunity to play professional you take the chance to play," Kessel said.

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