Just five days after playing against the Wolverines at Yost Ice Arena, the nation’s top recruit and United States National Team Development Program star Phil Kessel announced his verbal commitment to play for Minnesota next season.
The announcement, which came Friday during a phone press conference, marked the end of Michigan’s bid for the 17-year-old phenom. Earlier reports had Michigan out of the running as late as last Tuesday. While the team couldn’t comment, it is believed that it made a strong push for Kessel, who is projected as the top pick in the 2006 NHL draft.
“I woke up one morning, and, in my heart, I felt Minnesota was the best place for me,” Kessel said.
Mixing speed, talent and a sixth-sense for the game, Kessel has been mentioned in concert with NHL Hall of Famers Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.
Playing in his second season with the Ann Arbor-based NTDP, Kessel leads the team in almost every category. With 36 goals and 30 assists in 33 games, he set the program record for career goals and is close to the mark for assists. In two seasons, he has 88 goals in 95 contests.
Minnesota trumped one of the Wolverines biggest advantages, a close proximity to the program, and four of Kessel’s teammates had already signed with the Gophers next year. Kessel told the Associated Press that the signing of two of his NTDP teammates — Ryan Stoa and Jeff Frazee — helped seal the deal for Minnesota.
“(Stoa) and (Frazee) have been two of my good buddies,” Kessel said. “I’ve always wanted to go to school where by buddies are.”
Wisconsin is also feeling the burn from Kessel who grew up in Madison. The Gophers and Badgers are bitter rivals in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.