Kessel Closes the Book

Aug. 17, 2006

By Elliot Olshansky


Elliot is's hockey editor and runs his Rink Rat hockey blog on
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As a hockey player, Phil Kessel has been blessed with a remarkable way of making things look easy on the ice.  Sadly, the same does not hold true off the ice, not even on what should be a proud day of pure joy.


On a media conference call to announce his signing of an entry-level contract with the Boston Bruins - who chose him with the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft - one reporter took the opportunity to question him about the now-infamous incident where he was filmed by a local TV crew while drinking underage at Blarney Pub and Grill, a popular establishment near the Minnesota campus.


Before the Bruins' Director of Media Relations could instruct the reporter to limit his questions to Kessel's signing, the now-former Golden Gopher from Madison, Wis., answered, "All I can say is that it's college, and everyone likes to have fun in college, and it happens all over the place."


The question of underage drinking aside, Kessel's answer offers an important perspective on his personality. For all of the talent that makes him stand out on the ice, Phil is the kind of guy who'd be just as happy to blend in away from the rink, and be just like everybody else "all over the place."


 "I'm not a guy that likes all the big hoopla and attention like that," Kessel said.


However, from his breakout performance at the 2005 World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, N.D., to his recruitment process - made very much a public matter via his travels with the U.S. National Team Development Program - to his controversial decision to choose Minnesota over his hometown Badgers, and finally, his elongated decision-making process before signing with the Bruins, heaps of attention have come with the territory for Kessel over the last couple of years, and not all the attention has been positive.


"It's been pretty tough," Kessel said. "If it comes with it, I'll deal with it, but it's been tough to deal with so many criticisms over the past couple of years. I guess I've learned to deal with it."


One thing that has helped Kessel "deal with it" is a quiet confidence that shines through, even when he doesn't say a whole lot.


Take, for example, the decision to attend Minnesota, rejecting his hometown team, Wisconsin. It was an unpopular decision in many quarters outside the Twin Cities, and one that fans were delighted to recall when the Badgers captured the 2006 NCAA championship. Still, Kessel doesn't regret his decision for a second.


"For me, personally, it was the right decision for me," Kessel said. "I never regret the decision I made. I had a lot of fun at Minnesota, made a lot of good friends, and I thought we had a good season.  I'll never regret going to Minnesota."


Then, there was the decision to turn pro, one that Kessel spent weeks in making as fans and members of the media alike speculated on just which way he might go.


On the one hand, Kessel felt that he was ready to play at the highest level. "I had a chance to play versus pro players at the World Championship this year," Kessel said, "and I think I adapted well to playing with them. From there, I think I'm able to step in, and maybe make an impact this year in the NHL."


Besides, an NHL career is what Kessel has always wanted. "I've always dreamt of playing pro hockey," Kessel said. "I've never dreamt about being a college player."


Still, there was a kind of sadness in leaving Minnesota.


"It was really hard for me to leave," Kessel said. "Some of my best friends go to Minnesota. Today, I talked to [Gophers forward] Ryan Stoa, and it was hard to tell him that I was leaving, because he's one of my best friends. I've grown close to a lot of people there, and it was real tough for me to say goodbye."


Still, in the end, Kessel knew what was right for him.


"It was a tough decision," Kessel said of signing, "but I think it's the best decision for me and my hockey career."


Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli knew it as well, especially after going to watch and speak to Kessel at last week's USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.


"I wanted to talk to Phil, look him in the eye, and make sure he's ready and really motivated and enthused to make the commitment to pro hockey," Chiarelli said, "and he came through with flying colors."


With that decision now made, Kessel goes on to Boston, where the expectations, demands and scrutiny will only increase. Kessel will be competing to make a team that finished 29-37-16 in 2005-06, 22 points shy of a playoff spot, and, having been hailed as the best American born skater since Mike Modano or Pat Lafontaine, he'll be counted on to deliver the goods, with a devoted, but tough Boston fanbase to answer to.


How will he handle it? "I'm going to go out and try my best and play as hard as I can," Kessel said, "and hopefully, that'll be good enough for everyone."


Whether Kessel's best will be good enough for the Bruins this year is something that only time will tell, but there's a very good feeling among the Bruins' management.


"We have a certain level of expectations for Phil," Chiarelli said. "He's got speed and a variety of offensive skills.  He's got things to learn, like everyone else has, but we expect him to compete for a spot, and he's going to make it very, very interesting."


That's one thing about Phil Kessel: he always makes things interesting.


For more analysis of Phil Kessel's decision to sign with the Boston Bruins, read Elliot Olshansky's Rink Rat blog.



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