In the fall of 2005, Phil Kessel arrived at the University of Minnesota for a career that lasted just 39 games before being halted by Holy Cross and the lure of the NHL. Now, five years later, a second progeny of Phil Sr. and Kathy Kessel of Madison, Wis., is poised to make an even greater impact on Gophers athletics.
In street clothes, 5-foot-6-inch Amanda Kessel’s appearance doesn’t suggest a phenom on the ice.
“Whenever I meet friends’ parents, they’re always like, ‘You’re a hockey player?,’ kind of in disbelief,” she said.
Kessel resembles countless other blonde-haired, blue-eyed teens one sees at a Midwest mall or cinema on a weekend. Not that her schedule leaves much time for shopping or movies.
“You don’t really get any breaks; especially during the season, you may have one off weekend or so,” Kessel said. “Sometimes you wonder what it would be like to be a normal college student, but then all of the perks that come with it, I wouldn’t trade it.”
Upon seeing Kessel take the ice, any doubts about her playing hockey vanish.
Teammate Jen Schoullis, who first got to know her at Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep in Faribault, Minn., when Kessel was a 15-year-old freshman, marvels at her skating.
“I always tell her, ‘What is in your legs; how do some people get to skate that fast?’ She just smiles.”
Hockey coaches like to encourage their pupils to pass the puck, because the puck can travel faster than the skater; if true in Kessel’s case, it would be a close race. In a recent game versus Harvard, she swung back into her own zone to collect the puck near the goal line, accelerated as she turned, and beat the entire Crimson team down the ice. The last defenseman committed a penalty trying to stop her, and Minnesota scored the game-winning goal on the resulting power play. Gophers fans had seen a rush like that before, but only because they had the luxury of watching current assistant coach Natalie Darwitz in maroon and gold for three seasons.
“Her speed just sets her apart and is what makes her dynamic,” Darwitz said of Kessel. “I think people in the stands have gotten a glimpse of that.”
Kessel guesses that her velocity on the ice results from a couple of factors.
“I think genetics, and hard work mixed in there,” she said. “Both my parents are good athletes.”
While Kessel may be working hard as she skates, she makes it look effortless.
“She just floats,” said Minnesota head coach Brad Frost. “She’s so smooth and so deceptive.”
Schoullis, who started the season playing on a line centered by Kessel, says that her wings have to always be ready for a pass.
“She’s definitely extremely creative, and sees the ice probably better than anybody I’ve ever played with. Every time she’s out there, she’s making plays and creating chances from opportunities that not many players can create chances from.”
Darwitz, recognized as one of the best at reading the action as it unfolds on the ice, sees similar abilities in No. 8 for Minnesota.
“Amanda has great vision,” she said. “You can’t teach that stuff. You can teach raw speed, and skill, and shooting, but to teach a vision and to see a play create is a gift of Amanda’s.”
Kessel believes that in her case, at least, that talent was taught.
“I think some of it is natural, but also growing up I had great coaches,” she said. “Since I was young, I’ve been taught the game, the right systems. I think that definitely helps; coaching has a big part to do with it.”
Following older brothers Phil and Blake, now a junior defenseman at New Hampshire, Kessel began skating when she was three, and joined her first team when she was five or six. She starred on boys’ teams through bantams, winning state and regional championships with the Madison Capitols. In 2006, she enrolled at Shattuck and made the switch to the girls’ game.
“I loved playing with guys, because it pushed you, like the pace,” Kessel said. “I think that’s helped me in girls’ hockey. There’s an extra level of pace with boys. They’re obviously just stronger. When they started to get bigger, I couldn’t really handle it anymore.”
At Shattuck, opponents couldn’t really handle Kessel. She tallied 102 points her first year, progressing to a senior season where she accounted for 122 points in 46 games. Her Sabres won national U-19 titles in 2007 and 2009.
Kessel said it takes a lot of mental toughness to emerge on top.
“That’s always so tough in tournaments, because it’s like who can last that long, who can win that many games in a row. Not always the best teams win in those tournaments, but I think we always had good teams and people just stuck with it in those.”
Events didn’t always unfold perfectly for Shattuck, as their favored team was knocked out in a national quarterfinal in 2008.
“We had some really good players, a lot of top-notch players, and it was just like a heartbreaker, but we learned not to take anything for granted,” Kessel said. “We kind of came on slowly in that game and learned, I guess.”
Kessel also got a taste of international competition during her prep days, helping the United States to U-18 gold medals in 2008 and 2009. She’s now advanced to more senior national teams, competing with the U-22 team in a series versus Canada over the summer, and being named to the roster for Four Nations Cup before having to withdraw due to a shoulder injury.
“That level, it keeps getting better and better,” Kessel said. “U-18, that was a good experience, but then to get to play with the top girls in the nation, it helps me. Every camp, I think I get better after going to it.”
“She’s very college ready,” Frost said. “I thought she had a great chance to make that Olympic team last year.”
Darwitz, who captained the 2010 US Olympic team, thinks Kessel is on the right path to an Olympic dream.
“I just think getting her feet wet in the U.S. program, and getting experience against Canada and the top teams and the top players, and knowing what it’s like to go against them,” Darwitz said. “I think that’s going to help her out.
“With Amanda, you can pull her aside and work on a little more advanced things than you would with some average players. That I find a lot of joy in, because as you say, we kind of have the same vision, so it’s kind of like teaching myself. What did I want to do better, what can I do better, and translating that to Amanda.”
Kessel can identify a couple of areas where she’d like to see improvement.
“I think my shot could get a little bit better,” she said. “And then, I guess I just need to stay healthy. It’s kind of been impairing my play a bit.”
Despite missing three games and most of a fourth due to injury, Kessel is tied for second in points for Minnesota and leads in points per game, but her play thus far only hints at what she can do.
“She’s been banged up since before she even got here; most of the stuff, people don’t even know,” Frost said. “The shoulder is more public knowledge, but she’s been dealing with other things all year. Hopefully, by the time she comes back in January, she’s healthy enough to really play 100 percent for her.”
Her physical ailments led to some changes when she returned to face Harvard.
“Partially because of her injuries and partially because of trying to find some units that gel together, we’ve changed our lines up quite a bit, but Amanda is someone that can play with anybody,” Frost said. “As you saw last weekend, we had her on the wing for the first time, and it’s not because she can’t play center; she’s done a really good job there, just to kind of keep her out of the corners with her shoulder injury. We saw some really great things about playing her on wing, and that’s just her speed and the ability to attack off the rush. She’s a really flexible kid and will play anywhere that we need her to. I appreciate her attitude that way.”
That’s refreshing, given the word “attitude” often comes up in a negative context in sports.
“She’s definitely shy at first, but once you get to know her, she’s kind of like the new prankster on the team,” Schoullis said. “She has a good sense of humor, and she’s just an all-around good kid.”
And when it comes to hockey, more than just “good”.
“More than anybody, she wants to be the best player on the ice every night, and you want that from your top players,” Darwitz said.