With or without Kessel, this team will be just fine

Phil Kessel is such a prize that he probably wouldn’t stick around long anyway.

by Aaron Blake

Something was very wrong at Mariucci Arena this weekend: Minnesota men’s hockey fans were cheering and making signs for the wrong team.

The Phil Kessel circus – cleverly disguised as the U.S. National Under-18 Team – rolled through Minneapolis on Saturday. Adoring fans came from all over to profess their love for the 17-year-old wunderkind, who has yet to decide on a school for next year.

But to the fans in Section 14 who took the time to make a massive banner that read, “Kessel the Gopher!” and to everyone else who chanted his name at the end of Saturday’s contest, do yourselves a favor and don’t hold your breath.

He might be one of the best United States-born players in the history of the game when all is said and done, but that is also the reason Gophers fans shouldn’t waste too much ink and lung capacity on this guy.

“It’s fun to watch,” Under-18 team coach Ron Rolston said of Kessel’s play Saturday. “It’d be fun in this building for a couple years anyway.”

A couple years might be wishful thinking. Assuming the NHL gets its business together in time for a 2006-07 season, possible No. 1-pick status could be tugging hard at Kessel’s breezers after his freshman year.

It makes a guy wonder how long that decision would be drawn out.

“I feel bad, because I really don’t know where I want to go right now, to be honest with you,” Kessel said.

Kessel’s indecision seems genuine enough, and it’s hard to blame a 17-year-old for not being able to make up his mind – especially considering he has accelerated his studies to get a one-year head start on college.

He said that after his official visit with the Gophers ends Tuesday, he intends to make official visits with Michigan and Boston University. The Under-18 Team plays in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday, and at last check, Kessel’s hometown Badgers are still in the running as well.

But no matter where he goes, Kessel’s college career is more likely to be a cameo appearance than a starring role. Say what you want about athletes needing four years of college; players with the ability of Kessel have little use for that maturing process.

And even without Kessel in the mix next year, the Gophers’ next two recruiting classes will be special.

Fans at Mariucci got to see a good-sized chunk of those classes Saturday. Under-18 team forward Ryan Stoa and goaltender Jeff Frazee are signed up for next year while forward Peter Mueller (who is just below Kessel on most 2006 prospect lists) and defenseman Erik Johnson are committed for 2006-07.

Toss in Blake Wheeler, who was taken fifth overall in the 2004 NHL Draft, for next season and Shattuck-St. Mary’s star Kyle Okposo for 2006, and it’s clear the Gophers will be competing for national titles with or without Kessel.

The cheering and the sign-making are all in good fun, but don’t get too wrapped up in all of it.

The circus never stays in town for long.