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Amanda Kessel had the perfect storybook ending to her college career.
Having been sidelined by severe post-concussion symptoms since the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the 24-year-old returned to the University of Minnesota's lineup for the second half of the 2015-16 campaign. She racked up 11 goals in 13 games including the winner in the NCAA championship game win over Boston College on March 20.
Kessel’s comeback story would be fit for Hollywood if it ended there. But as far as she’s concerned, the tale is far from over.
“I definitely want to keep playing for at least the next couple years,” she tells SI.com. “My goal is to make the 2018 Olympic team so I’ll be training and hopefully get back in the U.S. training program and see where it goes from there. Now that I’m back, I still have that passion for the game, so as long as I have that, I’ll keep playing.”
In Sochi, Kessel played five games for the U.S. women’s team, scoring three goals and adding three assists in a run to the silver medal. But it’s the coveted gold, of which Canada has claimed the last four, that she really wants.
“It’s one thing to get to the Olympics, but it’s another to win a gold medal for your country and teammates,” she says. “That’s been a goal of mine since I was a little kid and I’m still hoping to achieve that.”
Before Sochi, Kessel was recognized as the best player in women’s college hockey with the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award in 2013 after leading the Golden Gophers to a 41-0-0 season and the national championship. In her first three seasons at Minnesota, she scored 97 goals and recorded 231 points in 114 games at the NCAA level, adding a gold medal-winning tally at the the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championship.
The Madison, Wisconsin native took a red shirt year in 2013–14 to focus on training for the Olympics and used her second and final red shirt last year as she continued to recover from her concussion. The NCAA grants athletes up to six years to complete their four seasons of eligibility, but heading into this season, it looked like Kessel’s career might have ended early.
“The love of my life, hockey, just not being in my life anymore was really hard,” she says. “There weren’t a lot of bright spots, that’s for sure. I wasn’t necessarily told I wouldn’t play again, but I just think the doctors didn’t want to say that.”
Most of her mornings were filled with feelings of complete sadness. Others were even worse, as she felt completely disconnected from herself and her world.
“I would wake up with bad headaches, than there was this disconnection from the world, you just feel like you’re not there and you’re not yourself,” she says. “That was pretty scary in itself, sometimes you can deal with that pain but just not being yourself is a whole ‘nother story.”
In August of 2015, Kessel felt enough like her old self to return to campus in Minneapolis, mainly to finish her degree in sports management. But her doctors wanted her to start skating again as a way to deal with her concussion, giving Minnesota coach Brad Frost hope.
“You see her on the ice, and you think that it’d be nice,” he told reporters after the national championship win. “But I felt like it was an extreme long shot. I tried not to think about it.”
By December, she was practicing with the team before she made her return in a 3–0 win over North Dakota on February 5. With Minnesota among the top teams in the country, Kessel’s return put the team on another level.
“It was kind of like getting a slugger at the trade deadline,” Frost said in his post-title press conference.
Kessel, who has now been a part of three NCAA championship teams [2011-12, '12-13, '15-16], said she’s still not quite back to the level where she once was, with not being able to hit the weight room during the last two years a major factor. Over the past six weeks however, she proved she’s healthy enough to once again be one of the USA's main weapons.
“I knew it’d be tough coming back,” she says. ”I wanted to be great right away but any injury, and especially with being out as long as I was, I knew that I wasn’t going to be exact same as I was. It was going to take time to get there. I knew I only had a short amount of time so I was just putting everything I had into every game.”
The Gophers were certainly appreciative of her efforts: a hat trick in a 6–2 win over Princeton in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, followed by the game-tying tally in a 3–2 overtime victory in the semifinals over rival Wisconsin. And finally, the second and eventual game-winning score against previously undefeated Boston College in the finale.
It still hasn’t fully set in for Kessel how much she’s accomplished in the last several weeks—or years for that matter—but a well-deserved vacation in Florida with some friends should help put things back in perspective. Once she gets back to Minnesota, she says she plans on going right back to work. With her collegiate career over, she is still looking at options like the NWHL and CWHL to determine which is the best path to be as prepared as possible for the PyeongChang Winter Games.
“I’ve definitely thought about what I’m going to do next year but there’s no set plans yet,” Kessel says. “I’d like to play on a team where I have some friends that are also trying to make the Olympic team so we can train together. But I think it’s great that women’s hockey has a couple of different leagues. It’d be great if they can somehow figure out a way to combine because it’s a great opportunity.”
The NWHL, the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary, just finished its first season with Kessel’s Team USA teammate Hilary Knight leading the Boston Pride to the inaugural Isobel Cup. Kessel says she’s talked to several people in the league about it, but she hasn’t made her mind up, one way or the other.
Whether it's the NWHL, the CWHL or the Olympics, don’t expect Kessel to go away anytime soon. She’s healthy, back playing the game she loves and is now chasing down the Olympic dream she’s had her entire life.
Get ready for the next chapter, because Amanda Kessel’s storybook career isn’t over yet. If the last six weeks are any indication, that’s extremely exciting for hockey fans.