MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – The Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby.

The University of Minnesota has Phil Kessel.

Kessel arrived on campus this fall with as much hype as a 17-year-old college freshman can get.

While Crosby, the No. 1 pick in the NHL, is already making his presence felt with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Kessel is expected to have a similar impact on the college game.

Crosby has drawn comparisons to countrymen Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, while many consider Kessel the top American prospect since Mike Modano.

“He’s the real deal,” Gophers teammate Gino Guyer said. “He gets up and down the ice, he’s a good playmaker and he has a really heavy shot.”

The Gophers won an intense recruiting battle for Kessel, who chose Minnesota over Wisconsin, located in his hometown of Madison.

The 6-foot, 190-pound forward played the last two seasons with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

He led the Under-18 team in goals (52), assists (46) and points (98) last season on his way to breaking the team record for goals in a season.

In two seasons with the bantams in Madison before he left for Ann Arbor, Kessel scored 289 goals in 157 games.

Downright bashful in public, Kessel shies away from talk about his personal accomplishments and the very real possibility of being the No. 1 pick in next year’s NHL draft.

“I’m not a guy that likes the attention that much,” Kessel said, sounding more surprised by it than wary of it. “I’m a guy that likes to go out and play hockey and have some fun.”

And what about the pros? How long will he be with the Gophers?

“I don’t have to worry about it right now,” Kessel said. “I’m just going to go out there and play and whatever happens, happens.”

Big things are expected to happen once he hits the ice. Kessel has participated in several captains’ practices so far but has yet to play in front of coach Don Lucia in the maroon and gold.

Lucia has been hesitant to heap praise on a freshman, but one of the things that drew Kessel to Minnesota is the fact that he’s one of a handful of stellar freshmen in this class. He joins goalie Jeff Frazee and forwards Blake Wheeler and Ryan Stoa as perhaps the best recruiting class in the nation.

“We have a great freshman class,” Kessel said. “We’re going to give the upper class a push for spots, but it’s not competitive. You can always look to (the other freshmen) to help the team out and stuff like that.”

And with a strong group returning including seniors Guyer and Chris Harrington and junior goalie Kellen Briggs, Kessel won’t be asked to carry the load, another similarity to Crosby, who is surrounded by quality veterans including Lemieux, John LeClair and Mark Recchi.

“Our team this year is unbelievable. We have a bunch of talented players out here,” Kessel said. “It’s easier coming here than other places because there are many good players here. You can feed off them and have a good season.”

All that adds up to the Gophers again being favorites for the NCAA title.

But there are plenty of games to be played before Kessel starts thinking about that, including a trip to Wisconsin on Jan. 27 and 28.

“I figure there might be some boos,” Kessel says with a sheepish grin. “But I’m excited. I want to win. Those are the games I really want to win.”

Junior Ryan Potulny knows what that’s like. The Grand Forks, N.D., native spurned the Sioux to come to Minnesota.

“I talked to him about how it’s going to be different coming in there, where maybe some people weren’t so happy with his decision,” Potulny said. “True friends, you’ll know who they are that weekend. They’ll back you no matter what.”

One thing is certain, the easygoing Kessel will enjoy every step of the way.

“I love to play hockey so I’m just coming out to have some fun, hang with the guys and win,” Kessel said. “That’s what I came here for.”

AP-ES-09-29-05 1940EDT

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