By Kristina Rutherford in Plymouth, Mich.
By Kristina Rutherford in Plymouth, Mich.
The fallout from a concussion kept Amanda Kessel sidelined for two years. But now the freshly crowned world champion is back and ready to take her place as the best player on earth.

Her gloves and stick are scattered on the ice, and Amanda Kessel’s right hand is in the air, her index finger up to indicate the No. 1. She does a quick succession of fist pumps, poses for a couple of photos, then removes the white world champion hat from her head to make it easier for the people handing out the hardware to slip that gold medal around her neck.

Minutes earlier, she’d had a chance to end this one, in overtime. She jumped on a loose puck in the neutral zone and charged down her right wing, generating a partial breakaway. She’d had several chances earlier in the game, too — on a bouncing puck right in front, and when she wheeled around a couple of Canadian defenders before sending a wrist shot wide. On this chance in extra time, Kessel is again denied. But minutes later, teammate Hilary Knight bangs home the winner, sending American bodies and gloves and sticks airborne. Kessel is still wearing most of her gear and that gold medal when she says: “Unbelievable.”

That’s the only word for it. And not just because this version of Team USA almost didn’t compete at the IIHF Women’s World Championship after threatening to boycott unless USA Hockey came through with better support. Kessel’s road here has been full of many more bumps — even full stops. She is coming off a two-year interruption that saw her go from a name in the conversation for Best Player in the World to the couch and no conversation at all, because talking hurt. She woke up every morning for more than a year hoping the headaches and the nausea would be gone. Kessel didn’t play a game for 23 months. At the age of 23, she thought her hockey career was over.

But Amanda Kessel is back — just not all the way, not quite yet. She’s healthy and she’s happy, and though she’s not the best she’s ever been, she remains one of the best players in the world. If everything goes to plan, the 25-year-old from Madison, Wisc., will be at her peak at the Olympics. Gold there would fulfill a lifelong dream, and be the icing on the cake for a hockey player who not too long ago thought she was no longer a hockey player — for a woman who wondered some days: “How do I go on?”

Peaking for PyeongChang
Kessel aims to be back to 100 per cent in time for the 2018 Olympics, amazing considering her career seemed over not all that long ago.

Ping pong, golf, cards, hockey, soccer — you name it, it was hotly contested in the Kessel household between Phil, Blake and Amanda. “Nothing ended in a tie,” says their mother, Kathy.

Amanda, the youngest Kessel kid, grew up playing minor hockey for the Madison Capitals, and played with boys through major Bantam AAA. She wanted to be an NHL player, just like her brothers did, and she wanted to play in the Olympics. At 17, during her senior year at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School — her third season for the Sabres with 100 points or more — Kessel was cut from the national team ahead of the Vancouver Games. “It had been my goal forever,” she says now. It’s a few days before the world championship final and she’s sitting in the restaurant at her team’s hotel in Plymouth, Mich., dressed in camouflage tights and a black hooded sweatshirt, her long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail and partially hidden under a dark green ball cap. Kessel smiles thinking back to that confident kid who thought she’d make the Olympic team. She remembers what the room looked like when coaches read off the roster, and she wasn’t on it. Says Kessel: “I was super upset.”

She shifted her sights to the 2014 Olympics, and with the way she played in college, nobody was leaving her off that roster. Kessel quickly became one of the most prolific players in NCAA history. As a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, her 80 points in 41 games led the Golden Gophers to the 2012 NCAA title, and after off-season hip surgery, Kessel had a perfect season in her third year of college: She became the fourth woman in NCAA hockey history to eclipse 100 points, with 101; she won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top collegiate player; she led her team to the NCAA’s first-ever undefeated season in women’s hockey, with a 41-0 record; and her Golden Gophers defended their championship. “I loved college,” Kessel says, grinning.

Finnish national team goalie Noora Raty played with Kessel those three seasons in Minnesota. “Most of the time she was dealing with injuries, usually small things,” Raty says. “I’m just wondering how good 100-per-cent healthy Kessel is. Because even when she’s hurt, she’s unbelievable.”

“I’m just wondering how good 100-per-cent healthy Kessel is. Because even when she’s hurt, she’s unbelievable.”

Less than three weeks after that second NCAA title, Kessel tore down the right wing late in the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championship final in Ottawa and rifled the winner into the top right corner. “What a great crowd there,” she remembers. When it’s brought up that few in the Canadian capital were cheering for her, she laughs. “To score and then all-of-a-sudden hear nothing?” Kessel says, raising her eyebrows. “It’s a good feeling.”

Kessel took the 2013–14 season off school to prepare for the Sochi Olympics. She was 22, but she felt like she’d been waiting her whole life for the moment. And that’s when her career veered off course.

At a national team training camp (she doesn’t remember exactly when), a teammate (she doesn’t remember who) tripped Kessel during practice. She went headfirst into the boards. She says she didn’t feel any symptoms after the crash, didn’t have a headache. But when Team USA played its pre-Olympic tune-up games, Kessel wasn’t in the lineup, out with what the team said was a lower-body injury.

In Sochi, No. 28 led the Americans with six points in five games. They lost to Canada in the gold medal final, but other than the colour of that medal, the experience surpassed Kessel’s expectations. “You walk into the village, and you’re there, finally,” she says. “As different as it is, you almost feel, not quite like you’re home, but a comfort of being there. It doesn’t feel like something that’s too big for you. It’s so cool.”

Top of the class
Kessel's junior year was as perfect as it gets in NCAA hockey: 101 points, a 41-0 record, a national title and the Patty Kazmaier Award.

Kessel returned home after the Olympics knowing she “never wanted to feel that feeling [of being second] again.” She played in a charity hockey game in March of that year, and that’s when the symptoms started: nausea, light sensitivity and headaches that worsened by the day. “It was out of nowhere,” she says. “I was like, ‘Something’s not right here, I need to go see somebody.’”

Instead of going back to school in 2014–15 — she needed just 73 points to eclipse the NCAA’s all-time record — Kessel spent the year inactive and unhappy. Some days the nausea stopped her from eating and some nights the headaches were so bad she couldn’t sleep. “I never smiled, I hardly laughed,” she says. “Friends could tell I just wasn’t there, I wasn’t myself at all.” She withdrew from her social circle, from teammates, and barely left the house. A 10-minute walk outside hurt her head.

Kessel’s days were spent confined to a couch. Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa, hosts of LIVE with Kelly, were the highlight of her weekdays. “It’s all I had,” Kessel says, leaned over a table at the restaurant. “I was basically a retired person.”

Watching hockey was too hard, seeing and not doing. Kelli Stack, her best friend on the U.S. national team, texted regularly. “She didn’t think she’d ever play again — we talked about it that way,” Stack says. “I let her know that it’s okay if you can’t. But for her to come to terms with that at 23, 24 — to think of it that way — it must have put even more stress on her.”

In July 2015, Kessel flew to Minnesota to tell Gophers coach Brad Frost that she was done. It was something they’d discussed before, but never definitively, never like this. “It was tough to hear,” says Frost. Hockey aside, he wondered whether Kessel would even be able to live a normal life. That month, he had a press conference to announce she would miss the 2015–16 season.

“All I had was 'LIVE with Kelly.' I was basically a retired person.”

Kessel had seen four or five different doctors by that point — in Pittsburgh, Boston and Atlanta. It seemed like she had tried everything. In Pittsburgh, she saw Dr. Ted Carrick, who’d helped Sidney Crosby return from his concussions. Carrick had her sit in a rotating chair called a GyroStim meant to stimulate her brain. It didn’t help much. She stopped watching TV and didn’t look at her phone for a couple months in case that would help. It didn’t.

She got bored and “even started to design my own pants at one point,” she says. “Seriously.” She spent hours researching pants and named her clothing line Fortius, Latin for stronger and the last word in the Olympic motto. When friends saw her in her black sweats with ribbed knees, they asked where they could get a pair. She’d only had three made.

If one of the best hockey players on the planet hadn’t started to feel better, she might be mass-producing sweat pants with the help of a Chinese manufacturer right now.

'I needed that bad'
Capturing her third NCAA title months after returning from injury helped Kessel feel like she'd truly put the years on the couch behind her.

The thing that had defined Kessel’s life before her concussion is what helped her get it back. In the summer of 2015 she saw Dr. Michael Collins, director of the sports medicine concussion program at the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Center. Collins suggested she retrain her brain to get used to action and movement by getting off the couch.

Her program consisted of 30 minutes of cardio a day. It would’ve been a breeze two years earlier, but it was torture. Collins told her to keep at it. “I would feel crappy but I’d have to go work out,” Kessel says.

Slowly, her symptoms started to dissipate. After a couple weeks, the best part of her day wasn’t Kelly or Michael or researching pants, it was that 30 minutes of exercise. “It’s never felt so amazing to walk on a treadmill,” Kessel says. She re-enrolled in school. In September, she skated for the first time since Sochi and “it felt natural.”

Soon she was skating a couple of times a week, and before long she had her roommate timing her. Friends started telling her things like: “I’m so happy you’re better, because you were really bad” and “You weren’t the Amanda I know.”

In early February 2016, Kessel was cleared for her first game back with the Gophers, a Friday night matchup against visiting North Dakota. “I remember waking up that morning. I basically was screaming,” Kessel says. “I couldn’t wait to play.”

She teared up in the dressing room, back with her teammates, when she pulled that gold jersey on. She teared up when the 2,635 fans in the crowd gave her a standing ovation after she was announced as the team’s starting right-winger. “Man, the ovation she got,” Frost says. “It was maybe as loud as I’ve heard it, other than when we’ve won national championships.” Kessel had two assists that night.

In March, Kessel scored the game-winner against Boston College to seal her third national title with the Gophers, the storybook ending to her NCAA career. She thinks back to that moment, throwing off her gloves, jumping on top of the goalie pile-on when the buzzer went. “To win another national championship,” she says, shaking her head, “I needed that. I needed that bad.”

“I basically was screaming. I couldn’t wait to play.”

A lower-body injury delayed her return to the national team, so it wasn’t until December that Kessel resumed play for Team USA, in a two-game series against Canada. “I can’t believe I’m back,” she thought. “I’m really doing this.”

The feeling was even more pronounced just a couple of weeks ago, when she arrived at the world championships. Not knowing whether she’d play at all wasn’t exactly easy — negotiations with USA Hockey went down to the wire, but a couple days before the tournament, an agreement was reached that will see the women’s team and girls’ programs better-supported. “I wanted to play internationally so bad,” Kessel says. She was disappointed and angry when she heard Team USA was looking for replacement players, she says “and the level of players they were asking,” which included high-school students. But any bad feelings went away when she saw her teammates again, when she put on that Team USA jersey ahead of their opener against Canada. “This is where I wanna be,” she says. “This is it.”

Downright terrifying
Teammate's estimate Kessel's back to about 75 per cent. "It’s pretty cool — and pretty scary for other teams — that Amanda Kessel can get better,” Frost says.

Kessel streaks down her off-wing, the final seconds of an American penalty ticking down near the end of the first period in Team USA’s second game of group play. She saucers a pass over a Russian stick to teammate Monique Lamoureux, who’s driving for the net. No. 28 heads in that direction, and the rebound from Lamoureux’s shot comes out just in front of her. Kessel stretches out, falling while she hammers the puck home. Three years, one month and 15 days have passed since she last scored for Team USA. The goal stands as the winner in a 7-0 victory. “It felt really good,” Kessel says. Well, yeah.

To a spectator watching Kessel today, there isn’t any evidence of rust on the five-foot-six, 135-pound winger. Her speed stands out. Her shiftiness and playmaking, too. “She’s an incredibly intelligent player,” says Frost. “She’s thinking the game a few steps ahead of most. She can anticipate plays well, she can dish the puck in ways many others can’t. She’s incredibly quick in tight spaces.”

But the rust is there. Stack, who plays on a power-play unit with Kessel, laughs and shakes her head when asked whether her teammate is all the way back. “Oh no,” she says. “She’s not even close to hitting her potential. What she’s capable of, taking over a game? Not even close.” Stack figures Kessel is at 70 to 75 per cent. “She’s a player that can score every time she’s on the ice. If I was a coach, I’d want her on the ice every other shift.”

“She can score every time she’s on the ice. If I was a coach, I’d want her on every other shift.”

Still, the fact Kessel is on the ice at all these days brings a smile to Stack’s face. “I love it,” she says. It’s a sentiment shared by every member of Team USA. “I just really enjoy watching her play,” says centreman Brianna Decker.

Stack, a forward herself, believes Kessel will be the best all-around player in the world soon. “She does everything: playmaking, she sees the ice better than anyone, and she’s so dangerous around the net,” Stack says. “She doesn’t really make mistakes, either. You can have her on in critical situations, because she’s so smart.”

She’s extra hungry, too. “You can see she has more of a killer instinct now,” Stack continues. “She isn’t afraid to go into a corner with someone twice her size and get gritty in front of the net and put home a rebound.”

Kessel can’t wait for the off-season. She can’t wait to lift weights and train and get all her strength and stamina back. “Speed, shot, strength,” she says, rattling off what’s going to improve. “I’m gonna continue to get better in every area of my game.”

The same thought has occurred to Frost. “It’s pretty cool — and pretty scary for other teams — that there’s still a lot more Amanda Kessel can do to get better,” he says.

Kessel is back to watching NHL games every chance she gets. Her favourite team is, of course, the Pittsburgh Penguins, but her favourite player isn’t who you might think. “I love watching [Chicago’s Artemi] Panarin,” she says. “He’s a right-hander like me. There’s other shifty people, but a lot of the guys are left-handed, so I can’t see things the same way. I like to watch his slips, and see what he does, and learn from him.” She’s always studying the game.

Just over a year ago, Kessel won her final NCAA title. Two days ago, she won world championship gold. The 2018 Olympics are a little more than nine months away. Kessel smiles, thinking of what’s now behind her, and what’s ahead in South Korea. “I’ll be ready,” she says.

Photo Credits

Paul Gilham/Getty Images; Martin Rose/Getty Images; Stacy Bengs/AP; Winslow Townson/AP; Harry How/Getty Images