Kessel looking forward to Wisconsin homecoming

Chris Lempesis

The Great American Hope. The next Big Thing. Perhaps the greatest American-born hockey player of all time.

Phil Kessel, the phenom freshman forward on Minnesota’s men’s hockey team, has had many glowing adjectives showered upon him during his brief time in the spotlight.

It’s highly unlikely, however, that any of those words will be thrown his way this weekend.

That’s because Minnesota’s series at Wisconsin will mark the first time Kessel, a native of Madison, Wis., plays in front of his hometown crowd as a member of the Gophers. It’s also going to be the first time he’s ever played at the Kohl Center.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Kessel said. “Getting to play in front of my family and friends ” it should be fun.”

Kessel said he wasn’t exactly sure how big a family contingent would be showing up at the Kohl Center to cheer him on, but guessed that his parents, grandparents and a large number of cousins would be there.

They’ll probably be the only ones in the crowd, which could be as big as 15,327 both nights, not booing Kessel.

“I don’t really care about that,” Kessel said of the possibility of being booed by his hometown crowd.

“It makes me play better, to tell you the truth.”

Kessel said it would be nice to play well enough to turn in the kind of performances junior forwards Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen had when they returned home to North Dakota in early December. Potulny and Irmen combined for five goals and three assists in that series, leading Minnesota to a two-game sweep of the Fighting Sioux.

Irmen said he hadn’t talked to Kessel too much yet about what to expect going back to Madison. But he said the team is going to let Kessel know he doesn’t have to put any extra pressure on himself. That’s something Irmen said he did when he returned to North Dakota for the first time in the 2003-2004 season.

“When you go back home, there’s mixed emotions,” Irmen said. “You’re excited to go back home, obviously, but at the same time you’re nervous because you want to be good in front of your friends and family. But, there’s 20 other guys on the ice and we’ll help him out this weekend.”

Kessel didn’t say he put any extra pressure on himself the first time the teams met, at Mariucci Arena in early December, however coach Don Lucia said he thinks Kessel will be more relaxed this time around.

“I think that’s his growth, his maturity,” Lucia said. “I think he’s just more relaxed as a person and a player right now than he was a couple months ago.”

And in a couple of months from now, there’s a chance Kessel could be back playing in Wisconsin. Both an NCAA regional and the Frozen Four are being held in his home state.

But neither one of those events are going to be at the Kohl Center. And with all the talk that Kessel could be a one-year-and-done player at Minnesota ” he is currently listed as the No. 2 North American prospect for the 2006 NHL entry draft ” his first time playing at the Kohl Center as a member of the Gophers could potentially be his last.

“You never know how many games you’ll get to play in the Kohl Center in front of your home town,” Kessel said.

He later added: “You don’t look that far ahead. You just play it game in and game out. You never know when it’s going to be your last game wherever you’re playing.”