SOCHI, Russia – Amanda Kessel is thinking about her DNA.
It’s two days before the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Kessel, the 22-year-old offensive dynamo for the U.S. women’s hockey team, is fielding familiar questions about her bloodlines from curious media, much of it Canadian.
Her father, Phil Kessel, Sr., was a journeyman quarterback that played nine games for the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders in 1982. “Neither one of my parents can really skate, but my father would always come on the ice in his boots and pass me pucks,” said Amanda Kessel. “I guess his vision, as far as being a quarterback … it’s just kinda in our genes.”
How’s her throwing arm?
“Not good,” she deadpans.
But the majority of the questions are, as usual, about another Phil Kessel: Her brother, a star winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Only Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos have more goals in the last three NHL seasons than Kessel (87) does.
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“A lot of people say we look a lot alike on the ice. I always wondered how that’d happen. It has to be genetics,” said Amanda Kessel, matter of factly. “We skate pretty similar. But I don’t quite have the same release as him.”
She answers questions about their childhood, his subdued personality vs. her engaging one, whether they’ve talked before Sochi, whether they plan on talking in Sochi, whether they have a personal bet surrounding the Olympic hockey tournaments … even one about Phil Kessel’s condo as seen on HBO "24/7.”
She answers them all, even as journalists qualify questions with “I know you’re probably sick of this, but …” Despite her own incredible achievements – 97 goals in 114 games at the University of Minnesota, back to back NCAA titles and a spot on the U.S. women’s Olympic ice hockey team after missing the cut in 2010 – she knows she’s defined by her brother’s hockey stardom.
But she could rewrite that definition by the end of the month.
Simply put, Amanda Kessel is one of the few women’s hockey players the U.S. has produced that’s poised for mainstream stardom.
She has all the hallmarks of potential stardom: Impressive goal scoring totals, and the flashy speed moves that go with them; a cohesive, possibly dominating line; a competitive ferocity, tempered by her jovial nature; the potential to have a gold medal around her neck by tournament’s end; and, of course, a name that has already made her familiar to legions of hockey fans.
But heading into the Sochi Games, where many fans will get their first glimpse of Kessel’s game, that’s all she’s been: a familiar name.
So who is Amanda Kessel?
Amanda Kessel Is Lethal.
Smart. Crafty. Dynamic.
Katey Stone, the U.S. women’s coach, lists the Amanda Kessel adjectives like a checklist, before adding, “And she’ll work her tail off.”
It’s a recipe that’s made Kessel one of the most successful offensive players in the history of collegiate Div. I women’s hockey. With 101 points in 36 games during the 2012-13 campaign, Kessel became only the fourth women's player in NCAA history to reach 100 points in a season. She became just the ninth player to reach 200 career points and needing only three seasons to do so. She won both USA Hockey’s player of the year award and the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, given to the best women’s college hockey player in the U.S.
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Julie Chu won that award in 2007. Now in her fourth Olympics, she’s seen plenty of young players ascend the ranks; but the 31-year-old forward believes Kessel’s an exceptional one.
“When she steps out there, she’s so deceptive. It’s amazing. When the puck’s on her stick you have to give her space because you’re not sure if she’s going to blow by you or do a quick dangle and dish the puck to someone else. Her craftiness opens up space for herself and the team,” said Chu, after the team’s first practice in Sochi.
Brianna Decker is Kessel’s linemate on the U.S. team and has known her since they were seven years old. “She brings a lot of skill. Makes things happen fast out there. Great eyesight,” said Decker, standing in a large auditorium in Sochi after the team’s kick-off press conference.
“Her and her brother skate a lot alike.”
Always back to Phil, it goes.
Amanda Kessel is standing about 20 feet away from Decker, playing another round of “Tell Us About Phil.” This time she’s relaying stories about the two of them causing damage inside their parents’ house while playing hockey with mini-sticks.
She admits that her intensity would get the better of her.
“Any time brothers and sisters are playing together, we couldn’t really control our tempers,” she said.
Not that it’s always blind rage for Kessel in competition. She’s known as one of the team’s top pranksters, along with Decker, although their styles are contrasting. Decker’s more of the “jump out of a hockey bag and say ‘boo’!” type. Kessel’s more crafty, according to Decker.
It’s all in good fun.
“I kinda like to keep the mood light. Not too serious,” said Kessel. “But when it comes to game time, my face gets serious.”
Amanda Kessel Has Friends Who Are Good At Hockey
Kessel will skate on a line with Decker in the Sochi Games. The two exhibit a shared-brain chemistry on the ice, with Decker at center and Kessel as the sniper on the wing.
“We just support each other real quick. Move the puck as fast as we can. That’s how we create space,” said Decker.
If the operative word is “fast,” then the conversation turns to the third member of the Americans’ top line: Kendall Coyne, a 21-year-old winger listed at 5 foot 2 inches and not standing much above it. She’s a water bug on the ice: Agile with blazing speed.
“We haven’t clocked everyone in the world, but I’d imagine she’s one of the fastest,” said Chu.
Coyne’s speed is another study in genetics for the women’s team.
“I’d say my speed … part of it is god-given talent. My dad’s really fast. He’s turning 60 and he still races us,” said Coyne.
Can she beat him in a race?
“Now I can,” she said, “but he won’t admit it.”
The trio hasn’t played much together in the last year. Kessel had hip surgery in 2012 and hasn’t played a meaningful game since last spring. Stone and Kessel both claim she’s recovered from the injury and the layoff.
Kessel anticipates the line will be a great combination, with Decker as the digger in the corners, herself as the scorer and Coyne owning speed that “I’ve never seen in women’s hockey,” Kessel says, adding, “I think we’re all little and quick and pretty shifty.”
It was an impressive checklist for the line, save for one omission: Controlled intensity.
“We’re all very competitive people, but we’re easygoing with each other,” said Coyne. “If you mess up, it’s like ‘we’ll do this differently next time.’ It’s not high stress.”
Is Kessel the most intense of the three?
“Yeah, I’d say so."
The only thing the line lacks? A proper nickname.
Their in-house moniker is The Pups, as in puppies, due to their youth and energy, but Kessel was open to other suggestions.
Call them what you want. But if the U.S. skates away with gold, you’ll likely be calling them role models.
Amanda Kessel Isn’t Sure What To Do With This Fame
The 1998 U.S. women’s hockey team won the inaugural gold medal in that tournament’s first year as an Olympic sport. It’s an achievement this year’s team is trying to replicate.
But they’re also trying to be the same caliber of people that were found on that championship team. As they were role models to the 2014 team, so would the 2014 team like to be ones for the next waves of women’s players in the U.S.
“I just got the chills,” said Coyne when considering that honor. “It sunk in when I went home this past Christmas and saw my Christmas card with [former U.S. Olympian] Cammi Granato on it from 1999. That’s when the dream started. If the 21 of us can be that woman to a little kid, it would be amazing.”
Kessel knows she’s a player that young fans admire. But a “role model” is something she can’t quite get her head around, despite being poised to grab the spotlight in Sochi.
“Our coaches and staff always want us on our best behavior, but I never really think of myself as a role model yet,” she said. “But I know a lot of young girls look up to me and to the team.”
Even more will, too, if Kessel and her teammates achieve their mission this month in Sochi.
“Since I can remember, I wanted to be in the Olympics,” said Kessel. “We’re not just here to compete. We’re here to win the gold medal.”
And perhaps have a chance to share that moment with her own role model.
“I’ve always looked up to him. To be in the same Games as him, I’m pretty excited,” said Amanda of Phil Kessel, who is playing for the U.S. men’s team in Sochi.
“It’s been the dream since I was a little kid. Every time I put on [the U.S. jersey]. I can’t believe that I’m actually here.”