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Ten years after Phil Kessel and a unique college commitment

In some ways a lot has changed since the hoopla of Kessel choosing Minnesota over Wisconsin yet the same things which happened in 2005 are also applicable in 2015.

Not maroon and gold and not #26. Still Kessel against a red taem..
Not maroon and gold and not #26. Still Kessel against a red taem..
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Today is the 10 year anniversary of one of the stranger, more drawn out recruiting battles coming to an end. On March 4, 2005 a forward from the United States U-18 team named Phil Kessel ended months of speculation with a conference call in Ann Arbor to say that he would go to Minnesota over hometown Wisconsin.

From Inside College Hockey's coverage of the event:

Kessel, the immensely talented U.S. National Team Development player who has dazzled crowds on college campuses and at the World Junior Championship this year, is the most coveted college hockey recruit in years, if not ever.

"I came to the decision within the last couple days," Kessel said. "It's been real hard making a decision, but I felt like the Gophers fit me best. I woke up one morning and felt in my heart that Minnesota is the right fit for me."

It's funny having a decade of hindsight and knowing what happened now. Kessel, then compared to being Sidney Crosby and arguments as to who would go #1 if the American was draft eligible in 2005, let alone 2006, spent a single season in college hockey with Minnesota. Despite putting up 51 points (18G-31A) in 39 games and wearing the #26 jersey number of the last big incoming Gopher freshman, Thomas Vanek, he didn't match the impossible expectations and along with pre-draft interviews dropped to the 5th pick in 2006 by the Boston Bruins.

(The first overall pick that year was defenseman Erik Johnson, who went to Minnesota the next year. The third overall pick - two ahead of Kessel - was another draft eligible player playing college hockey at North Dakota by the name of Jonathan Toews.)

To make matters worse, the main team Kessel spurned, Wisconsin, went on to the win the 2006 National Championship and Minnesota wound up upset in overtime by Atlantic Hockey champion Holy Cross (ushering in a new era in the 16 team tournament). Kind of made the Hulk Hogan glove to the ear and "M" jersey pop in Madison a little more palatable.

Maybe it was karma for a hockey player who had a ceremony that is regular for college football by putting on a hat. Maybe not. From a professional standpoint, Kessel, now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is having a fairly successful NHL career with five 30 goal seasons. He has outperformed many of the other big names that come through the college hockey landscape.

Still, to this day it's the only time in memory a hockey player made a college football style commitment.

Heck, I can't think of another college hockey player big enough before entering college since to get their own ESPN chat. That recruitment - things got personal. There have been other big name players taking their time in recruiting. Some de-committed before going elsewhere. Many of those recruiting battles which get attention have nothing to do with two schools. They end up being between college and the CHL over the summer.

But what Kessel did, what he went through in the year leading up to the Minnesota vs. Wisconsin moment with the media circus and show, is something unlike anyone has gone through.

While the recruiting landscape has changed, ten years after Phil Kessel's commitment to Minnesota the fact it remains unique shows a few things such as how far competition and technology have changed.

Competition with major junior and college hockey has ramped up in the last decade. With players deciding earlier and earlier between major junior and college it has made it harder for them to go through recruiting to senior year without making two or three choices or de-commiting. The best young players have been scooped up for years. (It's 2015 and close to 10 people born in 2000 have committed to a college.) We'll have to wait to see if they pan out.

As one person put it after an elite freshmen (in High School) defenseman committed to a school last year, "only about 40 people understand what (said school) got in the best (of his age group)."

There is no time for the elite like Kessel, who as an uncommitted held his own in the World Juniors, to shine in front of a larger group, let alone the regular best players. When the player projected to be the next Kessel in Jack Eichel committed to Boston University there was no hoopla. He was still a year away at best for the flames to start in excess as the next great American prospect before having the best freshman season in nearly 30 years.

Compared to 2005 when Facebook still had a "The" in front of it and Jenny was a friend of mine, nowadays college players act as their own PR team by using social media to make the announcement. The internet has made it that much easier to get the message out, just as it is for someone to share their thoughts on recruiting rankings, scouting reports or breaking the fourth wall in a piece about recruiting.

Within an hour or two with major commitments the diehard college hockey world knows without a press conference.

Of course the more things change, the more things stay the same. Just yesterday Kessel - now a reclusive interviewee coming out to stick up for teammate Dion Phaneuf for unfair treatment in the Toronto media (something he also receives) - launched 1000 thinkpieces, bringing to mind the media attention and scrutiny from almost 10 years ago.

Ten years later this quote from 2005 remains true and in a different context could fit in with 2015.

Kessel has dealt with tremendous attention over the past year, something that seems to have caught the somewhat quiet teenager off guard.

"You just take it in stride," he said. "I'm not the kind of person that likes all the hoopla. I don't like all the chants and signs like that. I like to keep it low-key."


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --