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"It makes me laugh a little bit. I mean, that's awesome to hear. I would love to make that kind of impact. I don’t know if it’s realistic, but I'm definitely looking to help the game grow ... We’ll see what happens here in the next couple of months."
That was what Amanda Kessel told us back in March.
What she was talking about are the inferences made to her being the 'Connor McDavid of women's professional hockey.'
Back in March, Kessel, 24, was coming off of a national championship win with the University of Minnesota. She was arguably the most sought after undrafted free agent among the professional ranks; finishing her collegiate career with 248 points in 136 games played. She also has experience at the international level as a part of the U.S. national team: 10 games in the U-18 World Juniors accumulating 30 points total; 10 games and 18 points at Women's World; and five games during the Sochi Olympics where she scored six points on the way to a silver medal.
The National Women's Hockey League (NWHL), Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), and the independent Minnesota Whitecaps were all after her services. They knew her impact on their organizations would be nothing short of earth shattering.
With her NCAA eligibility wrapped up, she made her decision official on Sunday by signing a one-year contract with the New York Riveters of the NWHL. As of Monday, she is currently the highest paid player in the league with a $26,000 salary.
"I was contacted by both [women's] leagues, but honestly I just knew that I would like to play in the NWHL," said Kessel on an NWHL conference call with reporters on Monday. "One, obviously being paid is nice and then it is an American league so there was another pull as well."
As for the Minnesota Whitecaps, where some of the U.S. women's national team players play: "Not really [an option] for me," Kessel added. "I think it's just awesome that we have a chance to actually be paid and be called true professionals at our sport. It's something that's new so I wanted an opportunity to be a part of that."
Getting to this point hasn't been an easy one for Kessel.
She experienced a concussion during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The post-concussion effects lasted well into the following season at Minnesota, causing her to use a red shirt year. As the team prepared to begin its 2015 season, the program confirmed it would be without Kessel - in her final year of NCAA eligibility - because she experiencing concussion symptoms.
While the hockey world projected her retirement, it wasn't something she was ready to consider.
"No [on retirement]. I think always in the back of my mind I was like, 'I’m going to figure out a way to play. I’m going to play again,'” Kessel told Puck Daddy in March. "I don’t think I ever completely lost hope, even as bad as I was feeling at times."
Kessel, like most professional athletes, caught a glimpse of life without her sport in it, and wasn't ready for that part to be over. Instead, it gave her perspective on what female athletes face constantly. Their collegiate career ends, and their ability to make money comes from the "real world" as opposed to being able to rely on a professional athlete's salary.
"It’s something that I think, especially as women, we have to continually [keep in mind] just because we’re not making millions playing our sport," said Kessel back in March. "We have to have other lives, and try to think about yourself as more than just an [athlete]. I think at first I really struggled with that, and something I got better at coping with the longer my injury went on."
Kessel credits her doctors, friends, and teammates for her during her long recovery. She also mentions seeing psychologists to help her cope with not being on the ice for so long.
"I didn’t see a sports psychologist, but a couple different psychologists in general. There wasn’t one in particular, but there were multiple. I definitely think it's helpful," added Kessel. "University of Minnesota does a really good job with that. I think a lot of people on my team see sports psychologists and there hasn’t been one person I’ve talked to that said they don’t find it beneficial."
In January 2016, Kessel began skating again. "Once I had a doctor that said he wasn’t really worried about anything, and that I was going to play hockey again, I started gaining more confidence in my health.
"... It’s hard to believe somebody telling you that at first. For so long I was kind of thinking I wouldn’t play, but once he told me that, he had so much experience that I gained a lot of confidence."
Shortly thereafter in February, she played in her first game in nearly two years.
"I was excited and very nervous, but yeah, more just excited; almost in disbelief that I was out there," said Kessel. "I don’t know if I’ve woken up that excited for a game in a long time."
She went on to play in the remaining 13 games the Golden Gophers' season. Two of the 13 were part of the Frozen Four where she and her teammates captured the final national championship of her collegiate career.
A week after that moment, she was already hearing from would-be suitors, "I’ve been contacted by a few different teams," said Kessel in March. "At this point, [I] don’t really have plans as far as the future except for I definitely will weigh out all my options. I’ve got to see what’s best for me going forward. I hope the leagues continue to grow and more people start playing in it."
When we pressed her for at least a couple short-term goals, Kessel said, "In the next three months, I will be training and lifting weights because it’s been a few years since I’ve done that. I’m actually super excited to get back in the gym and put on some muscle
"... I’ve got to get some more muscle on me just because I’d been out of the weight room for so long. Then just training for the Olympics."
That goal of making the Olympic team is what led Kessel to the NWHL. From the conference call,"... If I want to play in the next Olympics and be a part of the national team, you’ve got to be in a competitive league, practicing and playing a decent amount of games ... As far as a player, I’m only going to get better if I’m playing in the league."
Throughout this whole process, Kessel continues to be the driving force in her own career.
She even negotiated her own contract with the Riveters instead of enlisting an agent, or using USA Hockey as a middleman, as many of her national team compatriots had done in the previous year.
"I didn’t necessarily think [using an agent] was needed at this point in time," she said. "As of the limited amount of money we do make, it’s tough sometimes to want to give that away to somebody, to be completely honest about it."
As for her conversation with the heads of the national team, "I talked with the GM [Reagan Carey] from USA Hockey and told her I was thinking about the league, everything like that. Ultimately it came down to what would be the best spot for me to continue to get better as a player"
"As of now, there’s really no news about [rejoining the national team], but hopefully in the next couple months, [I can] get back into one of their training camps and then can hopefully earn another spot on their team," Kessel added on the call. "It’s definitely a huge goal of mine to play in the next Olympics ... I just started talking with them again because I hadn’t been playing hockey for so long. It was tough to have many conversations with them prior to that."
Fans of Kessel's aren't strictly limited to those who follow women's hockey. She comes from professional hockey playing family with two older brothers in the game.
She has a brother, Blake, who plays overseas. Amanda also has a brother, Phil, who is on the Pittsburgh Penguins. When asked point blank who was the best hockey player in the family, Phil Kessel replied truthfully.
From Mulanies on Tumblr:
And thusly, the hashtag of "#BestKessel" was born.
"It’s funny," Kessel told Puck Daddy. "I think my brothers have said that in interviews, but it’s probably a pretty close race. Both my brothers are super talented."
She's entirely too humble to rub it in the face of her siblings. As Kessel put it, "I think they get enough crap, so I try, sometimes, I try to be nice." That's more like it.
Kessel further cemented her status as Best Kessel when she chirped a Penguins "fan" who used her Twitter handle as a way to attempt to demean her brother Phil's play.
"I just like to mess around with people. Sometimes social media, it can be great but at the same time it can be bad, just so much negative stuff out there," said Kessel to Puck Daddy. "People sit behind their computer screens typing at somebody. I just thought it was an opportunity where I could say something because I think the next time it betters people from wanting to say anything, chirping from behind their screen."
How did Phil take her preventative action? Well, he didn't know it happened. Said Kessel, "I had to tell him that I said something. He doesn’t really do too much social media. He would have had no clue."
After the incident, Amanda added 'NHL player' to her Twitter profile as a joke.
She could probably add NHL coach and scout, too. Kessel watches every Penguins game she can, and was in Washington for Game 2 of the playoffs.
Together, Phil and Amanda (and probably Blake, too), try to better each others games, "... we give [feedback] back and forth to each other. I try to mostly be positive. I like it because [Phil will] actually ask for my opinion and I think he values it."
One thing everyone, including Phil, can all agree upon is the excitement surrounding Kessel's play in the professional women's ranks.
She made the decision on her own, without USA Hockey, to join the NWHL. She sees the brightest opportunity coming from this league. Now we just have to wait to see if the current national team members decide to join her.
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