Teammates For a Week
Gregoire and Kessel reunited for their annual summer meeting, after being bitter rivals during the season
Thursday, 07.16.2009 / 11:24 AM ET / News
By Kimber Auerbach
The red light in a hockey game sends a powerful message. It can light up a sold out arena or burn a hole through the hearts of players and fans alike. For Islanders prospects, Jason Gregoire of the University of North Dakota and Blake Kessel of the University of New Hampshire—and their teams that met head-to-head in the NCAA Northeast Regional Semi-Final last season—the red light illuminated at the end of that game will link their two careers forever. However, Gregoire and Kessel’s connection runs deeper than that Saturday night in late March.
“Draft day was exciting,” Gregoire said. “I didn’t attend but the second day, my family ordered the NHL Network so that we could watch it. I started to see players get picked who I knew and started to think that I would go soon. I got the phone call from the Islanders telling me that I was drafted before they announced it on TV so I was excited to tell everyone the good news when I hung up the phone.”
Once Gregoire was selected 76th overall, the Islanders turned their attention to Kessel. The young defenseman stayed clear of anything involving the Draft that day. Unsure whether his name would be selected, Kessel spent the day doing the only thing that could take his mind off of the draft…hockey.
“I was told to go about my day as if it were a normal summer day, so I went off to work as a counselor at a local hockey camp back home,” Kessel said. “I was driving home when my phone rang and it was Ryan Jankowski who informed me that I was selected by the Islanders. I was blown away and didn’t believe it at first. The rest of the day was a blur because I was so excited, it was definitely one of the best days of my life.”
Two weeks later, both Gregoire and Kessel jumped on a plane to New York and for the first time were teammates, donning the Islander crest at the team’s Mini-Camp.
Gregoire, a forward from Winnipeg, Manitoba, returned after Mini-Camp for his final season in the USHL with the Lincoln Stars and lit the red light quite often, scoring with 69 points (37 goals and 32 assists). Kessel, a defenseman from Verona, WI, finished his final season on the blue-line for the Waterloo Black Hawks and ranked second on the team in scoring and first among defensemen with 57 points (19 goals and 38 assists). That same season, both were named to their respective All-Star teams, Gregoire to the West Division All-Stars and Kessel to the East Division All-Stars. Both finished the game with a point but it was Kessel’s East Division All-Stars taking a 6-5 shootout victory over Gregoire and the West Division.
Last season, Gregoire and Kessel embarked on their freshman years in college with their respective teams. For the first time in their young careers, they did not have a game to circle on their schedules for when the two would matchup. At the completion of the 2008-09 season, Gregoire was skating on the University of North Dakota’s first line and finished with 29 points (12 goals and 17 assists) to lead all freshman in scoring. Back on the east coast, Kessel was skating with UNH and like Gregoire, at the end of the regular season, led all freshmen in scoring with 13 points (six goals and seven assists).
When the regular season was complete, both teams were ranked in the top 15 in the country and preparing for the NCAA Tournament. The brackets were completed and a first round matchup between the two universities was set with Kessel’s UNH Wildcats having the home-ice advantage of playing in Manchester.
“As the game was getting later and later, we were all just looking at each other thinking that we couldn’t believe it was going to end like this,” Kessel said. “We had a couple of great chances and it started to look like we were going to get back into the game.”
With nine minutes remaining, New Hampshire began their comeback, pulling within a goal and turning the pressure on North Dakota. New Hampshire coach Dick Umile called a timeout with about a minute remaining to rally his troops, but from the Kessel’s spot, things did not look good.
“The seniors were out on the ice and you knew they didn’t want their careers to end,” Kessel said. “Time kept ticking down and it was starting to look worse and worse but our energy guys were relentless on the ice.”
With less than a second remaining, New Hampshire got that tying goal, to send the game into overtime where they won it 45 seconds later.
“You always wonder if you’re going to lose whether you want to get blown out or lose in overtime. It’s tough to lose to any team, but to Kessel makes it even worse because of the friendly competition we’ve formed over the years. Putting up a couple of points in that game was thrilling, but for them to tie it with less than a second remaining was heartbreaking. I honestly thought that we had the momentum going into overtime but they had a quick 2-on-1 break in OT and our season was over.”
The red light continued to spin after that overtime goal, as Kessel poured over the bench in exhilaration with his teammates. On the other side of the ice, Gregoire began his slow walk back to North Dakota’s dressing room.
“We compete against each other every year and then one week out of the summer we come here to play together and catch up,” Gregoire said. “That’s what the game of hockey is all about. To lose that game the way we did was extremely tough but it’s going to make our team stronger. With Kessel, we’re friends off the ice but once that puck drops I’d have no problem running him and I’m sure that he would do the same to me.”