Kessel chooses Minnesota

The top prospect for the 2006 NHL Draft passed on his hometown Badgers.

Ben Goessling

If Minnesota’s men’s hockey team wasn’t feeling good enough after sweeping Michigan Tech during the weekend, Phil Kessel brought the excitement to a fever pitch.

Kessel, the U.S. National Under-18 Team forward most scouting services project as the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NHL Draft, officially announced Friday that he will play hockey for the Gophers next season.

The announcement ended months of speculation over a recruiting frenzy that ultimately boiled down to Kessel choosing between the Gophers and his hometown Wisconsin Badgers.

“I woke up one morning, and in my heart, I felt like Minnesota was the best place for me,” Kessel said.

The Verona, Wis., native will be the first Wisconsin-born player in Gophers history.

Kessel leads the Under-18 Team in goals (36), assists (30) and points (66) in 33 games this season.

He registered two goals and two assists in a 7-5 exhibition loss to the Gophers on Feb. 19.

“If you look at his points against Division I teams, he might even be leading the nation in points per game,” Under-18 Team coach Ron Rolston said. “He definitely makes me a better coach, with his ability to change a close game to one where we’re leading by a couple goals.”

Kessel said the phone call he made to Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves was “one of the toughest I’ve ever had to make,” and he expressed some remorse about not choosing the Badgers.

He was coached by 1980 U.S. Olympian Bob Suter in youth hockey and is good friends with former Badgers player Ryan Suter and recruit Garrett Suter.

But despite his close relationship with the Suter family, Kessel said he hoped they’d understand his choice.

“That’s going to be a tough conversation, but what can you do?” Kessel said. “I have the utmost respect for the Suters, but it had to be done.”

Bob Suter, who had been in close contact with the Kessel family throughout the recruiting process, said last week that he thought the arguments for Kessel staying home were too convincing to pass up.

“I told him that I’d think he’d want to play his last year or two of amateur hockey near his family,” Bob Suter said. “It comes down to where you’re going to train in the offseason, where you’re going to rehab if you get an injury.”

Ultimately, however, Kessel was swayed by coach Don Lucia’s wide-open offense, as well as the chance to enter college with close friends Ryan Stoa and Jeff Frazee – two Under-18 Team players who are also 2005 Gophers recruits.

Kessel already knows he won’t get his number of choice – No. 8, which was retired for John Mayasich, is the only Gophers number hanging from the rafters – but said he’d take No. 26, his number in international competition, if it was open.

That statement drew an obvious comparison to the last Gophers player to wear No. 26, and the parallels between Kessel and Thomas Vanek are many.

Most expect Kessel to be at Minnesota for only a year or two, but like Vanek, he might be the rare pure scorer who can lift a program to a championship in his first season.

“The thing I’ve appreciated is his ability to make others on the team better,” Rolston said. “He’s got it, and all great players have that ability.”