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The National Women's Hockey League may very well be Amanda Kessel's ticket back to the U.S. Women's Olympic team and Kessel wants to repay the NWHL in kind.
Kessel, a forward out of the University of Minnesota, inked a one-year deal with the New York Riveters on Sunday for $26,000, the richest contract in the NWHL’s two-year history. By signing her name to that dotted line, she gave a much-needed boost to a league that has recently been in headlines due to a lawsuit filed against it by one of its initial investors. The hope is that the presence of Pittsburgh Penguins star Phil Kessel's younger sister will put the NWHL back in the news for the right reasons and rehab its suddenly tattered image.
Amanda Kessel also hopes that playing for the Riveters will better her chances of returning to the Olympics.
Many know Kessel’s back story: A standout with Minnesota's Golden Gophers and silver medalist at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she was sidelined for months by concussion symptoms that put an indefinite pause on her playing days. During that time, numerous eulogies were written for her career, but she recovered and scored some big goals on Minnesota's way to the 2016 NCAA women's championship.
It’s a triumph in and of itself that she’s back on the ice, but Kessel isn’t finished. She has firmly set her sights on the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. The Riveters, she thinks, can help her get there.
Asked how far away this all feels from last fall when she was suffering from symptoms so severe that she spent her days on a couch, Kessel responds soberly, saying “almost impossible. Eight to 10 months ago if someone said I'd be playing college hockey this year and then going on to play in the NWHL next year ... I wouldn't have believed them.
“Someone like me, who's extremely competitive, I wasn't quite satisfied with where I was at but I had to take a step back and take a look at how far I'd come,” Kessel says of her most recent play with Minnesota. “I think I definitely got better every game I played. I think I'll continue to get better throughout the summer and leading up to the year.”
Her focus in signing with the NWHL was finding a team that meshed with her style, one she could contribute to and help build while elevating her own play. She thinks found that team in the Riveters, even though they finished last during the four-team league’s inaugural season.
New York played a blue-collar, grind-it-out style, dumping and chasing the puck to little effect against skillful squads like the Boston Pride, which boasted eight national team players on its roster, but Riveters head coach Chad Wiseman promised Kessel a fast, aggressive team next season and thus far he has gone about building it. That is step one.
Next on Kessel’s list is attending a U.S. National Team training camp. She even changed her jersey number as a way of getting into the proper mindset. "I've [worn] eight for my entire career and then throughout college, but with the national team I've been 28," she says. "I figured if I'm going to be playing with them again at any point that it'd be nice to have the same number."
Although Kessel had talks with the Canadian Women's National Hockey League, she preferred the NWHL, the home of many of her national teammates. "It's awesome that we get to have a chance to be paid and be called true professionals at our sport," she says. "It's something that's new so I want an opportunity to be a part of that."
Despite the negative publicity the NWHL has recently attracted, Kessel's signing was crucial. She adds star power to the league and the Riveters organization, and is undaunted by the legal challenge the NWHL is facing.
"As a player [the lawsuit] more just showed me that I need to support the league," she says. "It's a start-up, so that's going to be tough. Any start-up doesn't really go smoothly. I'm just here as a player to hopefully help in any way I can."
Known on Twitter as “#BestKessel,” the tag was given to her after her NHL All-Star brother Phil, who says she's the family's best player. Amanda had seen the hashtag but never knew the story behind it. She accepts the tribute with a chuckle. Phil may have no doubts about her talent, but she still has to convince USA Hockey that she deserves a spot at camp and a shot at the Olympic roster. Signing with the Riveters is just one more step in what will be a long road back.