Phil and Amanda Kessel are the new faces of U.S. ice hockey
Phil Kessel plays like a girl.
Specifically, he plays like the 5-foot-5 blonde-haired, blue-eyed, right-handed shot at Minnesota, a rising star on the U.S. women's hockey team -- with whom he happens to share a gene pool.
Off the ice, Amanda Kessel, with long yellow locks and no apparent facial scruff, doesn't look much like her oldest brother, Phil -- a winger for the Maple Leafs and the U.S. men -- but when the 22-year-old winger skates the resemblance between the two is uncanny. It's not just their stride, both skate slightly hunched over and are explosive off the hop, or the way they twirl their sticks in between whistles. The curve of their blades and the way they tape their sticks, even the company they keep, seems eerily similar. Phil shares his Toronto apartment with Maple Leafs teammate Tyler Bozak; Amanda is bunking in Sochi with Team USA defenseman Meghan Bozek.
"I turned on the women's worlds last year and I knew Amanda immediately because I was like, 'That's Phil!'" said U.S. women's hockey legend and Hall of Famer Cammi Granato, a part of America's first First Family of Hockey. "I had three brothers that played and none of us played the same. None of us, at all ... [But] there's something so similar about them ... the way they move with the puck and the confidence. To me, they're identical."
It's no surprise, then, that Amanda names Phil as her favorite player and role model, saying she tries to play just like him. While most kids watch their NHL idols from afar, Amanda just had to look across the dinner table when she was growing up in Verona, Wisc. Now the Kessel family table, already with two pros (middle child, Blake, who's 24, plays defense for the ECHL's Orlando Solar Bears), also seats possibly the two most important players for the U.S.'s hockey hopes in Sochi.
"To have two siblings in the same Olympics representing their country, is pretty incredible," said Tony Granato, who played for Team USA in the 1988 Calgary Games, 10 years before his sister led the U.S. women to gold in Nagano. "But they're not just players. They are two world-class players. Period."
Phil's talent and worth on ice are well known. A member of the silver medal-winning U.S. team in Vancouver four years ago, Kessel, 26 and now in his eighth NHL season, has only gotten better since 2010. Last season, he helped the Maple Leafs make the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and scored four goals in Toronto's seven-game loss to the Bruins in the first round. So far this year, Kessel has scored more goals than any player not named Alex Ovechkin. Since being named to Team USA on January 1, minutes after his Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings in the NHL's Winter Classic, Kessel has put up a league-high 28 points.
"Yeah, things are going pretty well," he said.
A world-class hockey player, yes, but nobody ever said Phil Kessel was an All-Star quote. Despite being the leading scorer for Toronto -- the team in the supposed center of the hockey universe -- when it comes to cameras and tape recorders, he prefers orbiting on the outskirts.
"He doesn't mind [doing interviews], but it's not something he's a huge fan of," Blake said. "He prefers to have a simple life."
So, too, does Amanda, who is not particularly effusive either -- though she seems infinitely more comfortable answering questions from reporters than her brother. During the first week of the Games, she was routinely the last player through the mixed zone, fielding a barrage of questions about everything from the Olympic village to the chemistry on her line. She had two goals and two assists in a 9-1 blowout of Switzerland on Monday, and showed the greater hockey world just how good she is. Those in the women's game have long known.
"Usually when you hear about a good player, everybody talks them up so much, and you watch them play and go, 'Oh, that's it?'" said former Team Canada defenseman Tessa Bonhomme, who worked as an on-air reporter for LeafsTV. "With Amanda, I was like, 'Holy God. That's her?'
"Playing against her is anything but easy," Bonhomme said. "I played against her [at the 2012 World Championships] and then went back and started covering the Leafs again, and I remember thinking to myself, I think she's better than Phil."
While Phil is now rightly considered an elite NHL player, Amanda may be peerless in the women's game. In her junior season with the Golden Gophers, in 2012-13, she led the NCAA with 101 points in 37 games, becoming just the fourth player to have 100 or more points in a season. She won the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award -- given annually to the top player in the country -- the day before she had four points (two goals, two assists) in the Gophers 6-3 victory over Boston University in the National Championship game, which capped off Minnesota's perfect 37-0-0 season. Playing for the women's national team, Kessel scored the golden goal against Canada at the 2013 World Championships.
"She's just getting started," Team USA coach Katey Stone said. "She has no idea how good she's going to be."
Though just 22, Kessel plays a mature game that shines through in her playmaking. She says that her vision and on-ice awareness may actually be something she inherited from her father, Phil Sr., a former quarterback who was once drafted by the Redskins and played a couple seasons in the CFL. Though he never skated, he spent countless hours training all three of his kids on the ice. He'd walk out onto a rink or a pond in his boots and feed pucks to Phil, Blake and Amanda, for hours, or even for just 15 minutes if they wanted to test out a new stick. He and his wife, Kathy, spent weekends shuttling their three kids all around the country -- including to tournaments in Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan -- putting more miles on their high-top van than any of the kids can remember now.
"Our parents did all the work," Blake said. "Without them, we would never have come close to where we all are at ... They're the reason we're successful."
But just as important to the Kessel family's success was having each other. "It's special," Amanda said. "Knowing that we trained together over the years, we helped each other in a way to get [here]."
All great athletes -- and even some average ones -- say that they are competitive, claiming that as their defining quality. So the Kessels are in no way unique in their overwhelming desire to win a card game or a ping-pong match. But they insist that they take it to a different level.
It started with games of mini-sticks in the basement, which Kathy eventually banned within the family because the games always seemed to end in fights. Then there were ping-pong tournaments, one of which ended in a middle-of-the-night meltdown when one of Phil's friends couldn't take the heat of competition. Pick-up games of hockey with buddies weren't too bad, when compared to the annual family game that the Kessel kids played on Christmas afternoon with their cousins and uncles. The three were never on the same team, so that often meant tempers would flare. Phil and Blake once got into a tussle, prompting Phil Sr. to skitter out in his boots to separate his boys. And Amanda knew that winning always came with a price.
"If [my team] beat [one of their] teams, I was getting off the ice in a second because there'd be a puck being fired at me soon," she said.
It was a small price to pay, however, to be able to tag along and play with her big brothers. And to their credit, Phil and Blake never shut her out. "It's hard to tell her no if she's just as good," Blake said.
Cammi Granato, seven years younger than Tony, got to play with her brothers because they needed a fourth to make teams; she became a force in the women's game. Amanda got to play with her brothers because her talent simply put her there. A few summers ago, she skated in pick-up games around Madison, Wisc., with Phil, Blake and another local family, the Suters. Phil usually drafted his sister onto his team; that is, if Ryan Suter, who is a defenseman for Team USA and the Wild, didn't pick her first.
It's evident that Amanda grew up with older brothers, Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. She's sarcastic and can take good-natured ribbing. And she is a professional prankster, jumping out of closets and hiding bubble gum in her teammates' gloves and skates. Nobody pranks her back, her Golden Gophers teammate Bethany Brausen said, "because you know she'll get you way worse. If she starts the war, she's going to finish it."
Likewise, she sees every shift to the very end, too. "She's always been incredibly gifted offensively," Frost said, "but she's our best penalty killer, too." It makes no difference that she's smaller than all but one of Team Canada's defensemen. She's used to playing with bigger bodies, and she's fearless with the puck.
The same couldn't always be said about Phil. In Boston, where he was drafted fifth overall in 2006 and spent three seasons, he sometimes drew the ire of Bruins fans, who relish a rugged, two-way brand of hockey. In '08, Kessel was even scratched for three games in Boston's first round playoff series against the Canadiens. He earned a reputation of being a bit soft. But in Toronto, and here in Sochi, he's proving that the label does not apply.
In the U.S.'s first game against Slovakia last week, Kessel became reacquainted with his 6-9, 255-pound shadow, Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. In the Maple Leafs' playoff series against Boston last spring, the two were inextricably linked on the ice, and Kessel, perhaps surprisingly to some, did not demure. He went into the punishing areas and made the brave plays. He scored four times, including two game-winners, in the seven-game series. Against Slovakia, he had a goal and two assists, as the U.S. cruised to a 7-1 victory.
"[Phil] is one of my favorite players in the league to watch. I love watching him on TV," Blackhawks winger and U.S. forward Patrick Kane said "Now, I wouldn't tell him that to his face, but he's been a treat to be around."
Phil followed up that performance with an assist in the U.S.'s shootout win against Russia on Saturday, and then scored a hat trick in a 5-1win over Slovenia on Sunday, helping Team USA secure the top seed in Group A and advance straight to the quarterfinals. Through the preliminary round, he led the Olympic men's field with seven points -- which was also, incidentally, three more points than Amanda had through her first three games.
For the last few years, Phil and Amanda have had a running contest over who will score more. In 2011-12, Phil finished just two points ahead of Amanda, who led Minnesota as a sophomore with 80 points. In '12-13, a lockout-shortened NHL season for Phil, she got the better of him with 101 points to his 52. They didn't make a bet prior to Sochi -- Amanda said that they're more interested in their teams' successes -- but the way both have been playing, it just might be understood.
Another similarity: Phil, too, can take a good razzing. He's probably used to it by now, being a fairly easy foil for teammates and hockey fans alike. For instance, his Team USA headshots, awkwardly posed like bad high school senior portraits, inspired some of the year's funniest Internet memes. And after his U.S. teammates saw a looping GIF of Kessel power-chugging a Powerade on the bench during the Slovakia game, he came to the rink the next day to find a few blue bottles left in his stall.
"Phil takes a lot of heat no matter what we're talking about," U.S. defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "He just laughs it off. He's a good sport about it."
"What you see is what you get with Phil," U.S. center Paul Stastny said. But when it comes to competition, Kessel isn't so chill. In the HBO reality series 24/7, audiences at last caught a less forced, less uncomfortable glimpse of Phil Kessel. Cameras spent time with him and Bozak, hanging out and playing pool at their apartment, and the show featured some intense games of ping-pong between Kessel and Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. It's no coincidence that so much of Kessel's airtime centered on games. After losing a rematch to Phaneuf in the last episode, Kessel retorted: "You are so f------ lucky, it's incredible."
His siblings know that side well; they both have it too. "It can sometimes be hours or days that we'll stay mad," Amanda said. She's been chased around tables and has had to lock herself in her room after victories over her brothers.
These days, the family competitions mostly take place on the golf course, where Blake will begrudgingly admit that Phil may be the best. "I don't understand how, because he has a terrible swing," Blake said. "He never knows where he's hitting the ball."
The brothers, Amanda and their mom will go out and play a few times a week during the summers. It's good to have the women of the family there, Blake said, in case he or Phil has a particularly good round. In those cases, the boys will need to be separated and ride the rest of the 18 in different carts. In the Kessel family, "There's always a winner and a loser," Blake said. "That's the worst thing."
But here in Sochi, for once, Phil and Amanda could both be winners. And that would be the best thing of all.