Arguably the best player to don a jersey for the women’s hockey team at Minnesota has announced her college career has come to an end. Lingering concussion symptoms and an unsure future have led Amanda Kessel to close the door on a prolific college career that included scoring 97 goals and tallying 231 points across three seasons. She is fourth among all-time scorers at Minnesota.
In her final year as a Gopher, Kessel racked up 101 points (46 goals, 55 assists), leading the Gophers to a perfect 41-0 season and winning the Patty Kazmaier Award.
Kessel took a redshirt season to compete with Team USA in the Sochi Olympics. She suffered the concussion in the lead-up to Sochi, but was cleared to play. She led the Americans with six points in five games.
After the games, however, she experienced “lingering concussion symptoms due to injuries sustained as a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team,” leading her to have Minnesota release a statement in September 2014 explaining that she would sit out the 2014-15 season.
The press release statement on September 14 was the last public comment from Kessel on the subject.
“As someone who has played through a lot of injuries, it wasn’t until suffering a concussion that I fully understood the importance of being 100 percent healthy when I’m on the ice,” Kessel said in the statement. “Unfortunately, that isn’t the case right now. My No. 1 priority is my health, and I hope that I’ll be able to return to the ice in the future.”
Kessel redshirted for last season, so she’d have had to apply for an exemption from the NCAA to do so again for 2015-16. Instead, she announced she will retire.
“Amanda is one of the best players in the whole world,” said Minnesota coach Brad Frost. “To have somebody of her caliber — to have her college career ended by concussions is disappointing, first and foremost for her, but definitely for the hockey community as well.”
For Minnesota, recruiting top-caliber talent means that their players often have duties with their respective national teams, leaving them open to more injuries.
“I think that’s a big concern for every coach that has national team players; you want and need to recruit those players to make your team as good as can be,” said Frost.
It’s a balance for Frost and other college coaches, who both want to protect their players but also want them to reach their potential and goals.
“It’s hard to let them go when they’re not in your care, but at the same time, we’d never prevent them from participating with the national team,” said Frost. “I mean, that’s a dream of theirs — just like winning a national championship is. It’s a dream of theirs to represent their countries and we’d never stop them from doing it. Just like a parent who has to let their child go out of the nest eventually, it’s the same thing for us as college coaches. When you have tremendous players like that, you have to let them go to these different tournaments and camps and you just have to hope they come back healthy.”
Former Minnesota goalie and Finnish national team member Noora Räty had the privilege of playing both for and against Kessel.
“I would say that when she was 100 percent healthy, she was the best player in the world. I’m really sad to see her career end like this, but I know she’s doing good now. It’s not only a loss to the University of Minnesota, but to the whole community of women’s hockey.
“I truly enjoyed having her on the team and going against her in practice, because I knew that if I could stop her in the practice, I could stop anyone in the game. I mean, she was just a great teammate too, not only on the ice, but off the ice too. She got along with everyone and she’s not the loudest girl in the room, but she definitely led by example. She’s just a world-class athlete. It was just fun to watch her every time on the ice. Her speed and her skill are just different than anyone else. I was a little sad that her career ended like this.”
Kessel is the latest in an increasingly growing line of women’s college hockey players that have had their careers jeopardized with concussions.
This is the third Minnesota player in the last five years whose career was cut short by concussion. Forward Ashley Stenerson was forced to retire after her freshman season, and goaltender Alyssa Grogan missed 16 months, though she was able to make a brief on-ice appearance for her Senior Day.
U.S. National Team player and member of the Harvard Crimson Josephine Pucci missed a season due to concussions, as did Wisconsin’s Brittany Ammerman. They, along with Kessel and, notably, the NHL’s Sidney Crosby, worked with doctors at the renowned Carrick Brain Center in Atlanta on their brain health management and rehabilitation.
Ammerman spent much of her year off the ice in dark rooms, trying to control the symptoms of her concussion. She chose to return to the ice after recovering when doctors told her she’d have to hit her head in the exact same way a second time in order to suffer lasting effects. She returned to Wisconsin and led the team in points and was a Patty Kazmaier top-10 finalist for the 2013-2014 season.
Though it can seem like the number of concussions is on the rise or that games have gotten more physical, Räty said it’s just likely that we’re paying more attention.
“The physicality and everything is probably the same that it used to be, but what’s better is research and knowing more about concussions,” she said. “Before you would have a headache and they’d just tell you to go out and play. Now it’s so much easier to know if you’re concussed or not.”
As the women’s game does not include body checking, many assume there is a lack of physicality in the game. The ongoing concussion issue belies the argument, but Räty believes bringing checking into the women’s game might actually help bring down head injuries.
Having spent the past season playing in a men’s professional league in Finland, Räty brings perspective to the checking argument.
“It’s different with girls; that’s why I’d like to see some day to have body checking in girls hockey, so that players will be more aware when they go in the corners,” Räty said. “The biggest difference I see between boys and girls is that when guys go to the corner, they’re really aware who’s behind them. But girls go to the corner and they don’t really know who’s behind them or who’s a threat and that’s when I think the injuries happen the most, because they’re not ready to get hit. Guys are constantly aware that someone might body check you, so their bodies are ready to take the hits. As a girl, you’re not really prepared to get hit and when you get hit, you’re more likely to get hurt.”
While the announcement only covered Kessel’s college career, it’s impossible to know what the future holds for her.
“It’s one of the most frustrating injuries because one day you might feel good and another day you might feel awful can’t even get out of the bed,” said Räty. “It’s the kind of injury that impacts the rest of your life. You really can’t know if it takes two weeks or if it takes your whole life.”
One of the hardest parts of hearing about Kessel’s retirement is wondering “what if” about her final season with the Gophers. Inserting her skill into the already potent line-up set to hit the ice for Minnesota this season is the stuff of Gophers fans dreams. While Frost and Gophers fans everywhere are understandably upset and disappointed that this will never happen, Frost did find a small comfort in thinking about Kessel’s career.
“The silver lining is that in Amanda’s last year playing for us in 2013, we went 41-0, the only program to ever go undefeated,” said Frost. “She was the Patty Kazmaier Award winner and she finished her career with us on top. It was going to be hard for her, if she ever came back, to try to duplicate that, anyway. That’s the thing that I, and I think all of our fans, will remember about Amanda — is that she went out with us, anyways, on top and she was a special, special player that made everybody around her better and she was a threat every time she stepped on the ice.”