Kesler helps lead USA to finals

By Simon Richard

It hasn’t happened many times in the history of its participation in the WJC that U.S. National Junior Team had reasons to believe it could win all. But it is the case this year. The roster of the present edition of Team USA includes many great players. One of them is Ryan Kesler.

A Vancouver first round pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Kesler is a product of the US National Team Development Program (USNTDP). The native of Livonia, Michigan was also a member of the squad who won the gold medal at the U18 2002 World Championship in Slovakia where he received the Best Player Award for the tournament.

At the 2003 World Junior in Nova Scotia, Kesler was the second scoring leader of his team. He is back at the World Junior in 2004, having in the meantime played seven games with Vancouver Canucks.

“We are fortunate Vancouver had a healthy roster and agreed to release Ryan to us,” said Mike Eaves, Team USA coach at the Helsinki Arena.

“For several reasons, he is a big piece of the puzzle,” admitted the coach. Among the factors, Eaves mentioned that Kesler has a lot of experience from former U.S. national teams but also from the one he got on minor pro level with Manitoba Moose in AHL and from his seven games played for Vancouver Canucks.

“I can see the change. He is bigger, stronger and shots the puck harder,” said Eaves who coached Kesler for two years when the latter was on U17 and U18 teams with the NTDP. “You can tell he played with men,” he added.

Kesler is an essential part of the penalty killing and power play specialty teams.

“His best game was against Russia,” said Eaves prior to the semi-final game against Finland.

So far, Kesler has scored two goals in four games at the 2004 WJC. He played a remarkable game against Finland in the semi-final.

A hard man

Kesler was severely hit close to an eye by a stick during the game against Slovakia. The injury necessitated many both internal and external stitches to repair the damages. Linda and Mike Kesler, Ryan’s parents, were in the arena when it happened.

“The doctor said it was as close as you can come out losing an eye”, commented his father yesterday.

Ryan had to visit a specialist in the city of Tampere to be sure his eye was OK. He came back on ice the following game against Sweden. “The team’s doctor admitted that not many kids would be on ice so fast with such an injury,” added Ryan’s father. According to Mr. Kesler, his son played 24 minutes in that game, including 12 in a period while Ryan had to continuously kill penalties for his team.

The road to the success

Ryan’s father Mike played hockey at Colorado College and has since been coaching hockey for almost 30 years. The now Junior Motor City Chiefs of Michigan coach relates that his son played AAA for Compuware, the same team indeed where former NHL star Pat Lafontaine played in the 1980’s.

From there Ryan chose the NTDP option “because development was the key word,” said Mr. Kesler. “Every day, the players spend an hour an half on ice and then off ice,” commented Ryan’s father. After this stage, Ryan chose the college road. He went at Ohio State mainly because it was only 20 miles away from home and that the hockey program was very good. His other option considered was Wisconsin University, where Mikes Eaves coaches.

“Ryan is very intense and committed to what he is doing. When he has a goal, he does everything possible to get it,” said Ryan’s father, adding in the same breath that his son does not procrastinate.

According to Mr. Kesler, in the Canucks organization, his son has been compared to Trevor Linden and Adam Deadmarsh. “Mark Crawford has been quoted saying that when someone skates the way Ryan does, that person will have a long career,” added Mr Kesler.

Father’s Pride

Mike Kesler recognizes it does represent a lot for a father to see his son reach the ultimate goal to play in the best league of the world.

“There is no word to describe the feeling we have. All of a sudden, we realize he is out there and has done it,” says Mr. Kesler of Ryan in the NHL.

Mr. Kesler was also in Slovakia when the USA won the U18 Championship gold medal for the first time. He does remember very well the very close and absolutely thrilling end of the game against Russia.

“My son was on the ice for the last three and half minutes, taking every draw,” he said with emotion reappearing in his voice.

Mike Eaves was the coach in Slovakia then as well. When questioned about those three and half minutes passed on ice a couple of hours after our chat with Ryan’s father, Eaves had a large smile and said, “I would have said that too if I was his father.”