In one calendar year, Amanda Kessel has returned from injury twice to make her third USA Women’s Hockey roster. Now the question is, can Kessel return and become one of the best women’s hockey players in the country again?
If this weekend is any indication, the answer is yes. At the 2017 National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) All-Star game, Amanda Kessel led her team to a 11-10 victory with three goals, including the game-winner with a minute to go in the contest. Amanda Kessel was named MVP of the game, making her the second-ever NWHL All-Star MVP.
Kessel was one of two players from the league chosen to captain the All-Star Weekend activities held at the practice facility of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Amanda’s brother Phil Kessel currently plays for the Penguins, helping the franchise win its third Stanley Cup last year. 2016 All-Star MVP Kelley Steadman was the other captain selected. Steadman serves as the Director of Operation for Women’s Ice Hockey Operations at Robert Morris University located in Pittsburgh.
The two captains drafted a team of 13 players from the four NWHL markets: Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters. Kessel was drafted by the Riveters for the 2016-17 season, and Steadman is in her second season with the Beauts
The two-day event consisted of a five part skills competition on Saturday and a 4-on-4 game on Sunday. Kessel and her team took a 3-2 lead, winning the fastest skater competition (Rebecca Russo, New York Riveters), the breakaway challenge (Gigi Marvin, Boston Pride) and the shootout challenge (team event). The 3-2 score transferred over to the sold-out All-Star Game on Sunday, and despite Team Steadman tying the game up early, it would ultimately be Team Kessel that would win, in no small part to Amanda’s hat trick.
Kessel seemed to be in the best shape of her short professional career over the weekend. Prior to last month, the three time NCAA National Champion was sidelined with a groin injury. While Kessel is no stranger to injury, she is also no stranger to comebacks.
After helping the University of Minnesota Gophers to the NCAA national win in 2013, and winning an Olympic silver medal on the 2014 USA Women’s Hockey National Team, she did not play the following year due to symptoms caused by a concussion she suffered before the Olympic Games. Seven months after her first Olympic appearance, Kessel announced she was withdrawing from University of Minnesota to recover from a concussion suffered with the national team, a decision supported by her coaches.
Kessel would spend the next year and a half seeing specialists, trying to recover from a concussion post-concussion symptoms. She returned to competition February of last year, and led the Gophers to a NCAA National Championship for the third time in her college career. “It was one of the craziest and best experiences that I’ve had,” said Kessel in an interview with Excelle Sports, “I still can’t believe that [it] happened after coming back from so long … I think of that often and think how lucky I am and [about] what a great time it was.”
Kessel returned to the Riveters in January, and much like her return to Minnesota, made an immediate impact. Since her return, she has eight points (2 goals, 6 assists) in her last four appearances with the second place Riveters.
As of now, Kessel is the only current U.S National Team player on the Riveters. If she’s looking to make a case for being Olympic roster-worthy, a pretty good litmus test might be how she performs against other USA Hockey talent. Therefore, her dominant performance at the 2017 All-Star Game is a step in the right direction, “For me, it’s just exciting to be here, and be on the ice,” said Kessel after Sunday’s All-Star Game.
With a shortened NWHL season, Kessel looks forward to making all her remaining games before June training camp count, “We have three regular season games left, and two versus Boston, so we’d like to get one [win] on them,” said Kessel about returning to the Riveters.
When asked about the shortened season, Kessel had a difference of opinion from her USA teammate Hilary Knight, “I have mixed feelings about it. I always want to be playing as much hockey as possible. We have Olympic tryouts shortly after the [IIHF Women’s World Championships], so for me, I would have liked to play games. But, I think I’ll just have to find a different way to train now.”
At the conclusion of the NWHL season on March 19th, Kessel is expected to join Team USA at the IIHF Women’s World Championships at the end of March, before preparing to make her ultimate comeback, “My biggest goal is to make the 2018 team and win a gold medal.”