Saturday, May 20, 2006

Stars' tender Kessel set for camp

Blake Kessel skates through lofty expectations like they were a bunch of lead-legged defenders along his route to the net. That'll happen when your father is a former pro quarterback and your older brother is expected to be one of the first five players selected in next month's NHL Draft. Even his sister Amanda is a star-in-the-making, and is set to play for the Capitols' 1991 boys bantam program next year.

But with the same silky-smooth aplomb that made the 6-3, 205-pound defenseman the leading scorer on his midget major club in 2005-06, Blake brushes off any pressure that might come with being a member of a high-achieving athletic family, and is in the process of penning his own success story. The opening chapter begins this weekend at Centre ICE arena, where Kessel and nearly 100 others are vying for roster spots with the Traverse City North Stars.

"I don't feel any added pressure because of who my family is or what they've done," said the former Madison Capitols star and North Stars tender. "I'm trying to be my own player - and I'm a different player than my brother."

Blake's eldest sibling, Phil Kessel Jr., played in the North American Hockey League with the U.S. National Team Development Program's U-17 and U-18 squads, and went on to the University of Minnesota, where he was an easy choice as the NCAA Freshman of the Year. Pro scouts have pegged him anywhere from the top overall pick in the June 24 NHL Entry Draft to sixth overall.

"Actually, it's been kind of neat to get to be with him through it all," Blake explained. "I mean, it's everyone's dream to play pro hockey and he's right there. He knows no matter where he goes (in the draft), he's going to have to prove himself all over again. I got to go with him to North Dakota and Vancouver this year (for NHL functions), and we're going to start working out with each other again this summer."

Blake's father, Phil Kessel Sr., played quarterback at Northern Michigan, was drafted by the Washington Redskins, and played professionally for Calgary of the CFL and Birmingham of the USFL, so he knows a thing or two about expectations and ability.

"I've never seen Blake be anything but happy for his siblings when they do well," he said. "In fact, I think it makes him work harder. I've tried to explain to Blake, and I know he understands, that his brother is one of those incredibly gifted athletes and things have come along very quickly for him - quicker than most. Blake is his own person, his own player, and he shouldn't be anything but proud of what he has accomplished and will accomplish in the future."

Blake might be the younger brother, but his on-ice abilities display a wisdom beyond his years. He led his Madison midget major club with an astonishing 33 goals and 47 assists, which are astronomical numbers over 62 games, especially for a defenseman.

"We just love him," said North Stars head coach/GM Scott Gardiner. "We love his size, his skill, his attitude. He's just so solid in front of the net - either net. We are very excited to finally get to have him here and see him play this weekend."

Blake says that despite his jaw-dropping offensive numbers, it's his defense that provides him with the most satisfaction.

"I take a lot of pride in not getting beat," he said. "I'll jump in the play, but I just hate giving up goals. That's really been instilled in me by my (midget) coaches. They really pushed that style of play, and I try to live up to that every shift."

The weekend will be a benchmark for Blake, who - naturally - got some advice from his older brother.

"He told me about how much faster the play was going to be and to keep my head up. There are a lot of things I hope to learn, and I'm excited to see where I am compared to the other guys."

The North Stars tryout camp - held in advance of the May 23 NAHL Draft -- continues throughout the weekend, culminating in Sunday's Blue & White championship game at 12:15 p.m.

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