A title defense at any professional level is never easy, but fresh off of an Isobel Cup victory in 2017-18, the Metropolitan Riveters greatly increased their chances of repeating as NWHL champions Monday. After all, when it came to top free agents, Amanda Kessel was at the head of the class, and the Riveters announced Monday that the former NWHL all-star captain has signed on to continue her professional career in New York.
“I had a great experience my first year,” Kessel said. “And I fell in love with New York City which helped. I had a really good experience, with a lot of really good players on that team and great people. So, it’s easy to want to come back and play. They won last year and I’ll try to help out as much as I can this year.”
Chances are Kessel is going to help out a lot, too.
Kessel, 26, has proven herself to be among the most elite scoring talents in the women’s game, a playmaker with a mind for the game and superior vision. And the younger sister of Pittsburgh Penguins winger Phil Kessel comes by the moniker ‘Best Kessel’ honestly. During the 2016-17 campaign, Kessel scored four goals and 18 points in eight games with Riveters. She finished that season with the eighth-most points in the circuit, and her 2.25 points per game rate is the highest any player has maintained in season, even besting the likes of Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight.
Her performance as an NWHL rookie came as no surprise to those who followed her college career, however. While at the University of Minnesota, Kessel scored 108 goals and 248 points in 136 games, won three national championships and was a near unstoppable force. Among women to skate in at least 100 games at the college level, Kessel ranks 12th all-time in points per game in the NCAA. As many are aware, though, Kessel’s career hit a rough patch following the 2014 Olympics.
Prior to participating in the Sochi Games, she suffered a concussion that threatened her participation. She returned in time to play, however, and was a standout for Team USA, scoring three goals and six points, but it seemed for a while as though that would be the last of her career. Kessel was on the sideline for the entire 2014-15 NCAA season with symptoms stemming from the concussion, but made a somewhat miraculous comeback late in the 2015-16 season after it had previously been announced that she would be out for the entire campaign. And having now completed her second full season since her return, Kessel said there’s no concern. “I feel great,” she said. “It’s crazy to think that it took that long to get healthy, but since I’ve been back I haven’t had any setbacks. I learned a lot about my head, concussions and about myself in general throughout those times. I feel great now.”
And that’s bad news for the NWHL’s other four teams, including the expansion Minnesota Whitecaps, who some thought Kessel was bound to join in free agency. And while she did consider returning to her former college quarters, citing a level of comfortability, she instead chose to return to her erstwhile NWHL home. So, is she prepared for the possibility of some jeers when she’s suiting up for the enemy? “No, I don’t like that,” Kessel laughed. “I think it’ll be fun. I think that they should have a good draw of fans. But now everybody is going to be rooting against me, and I don’t like that so much.”
Of course, the boos will likely be few and far between even if she dots the scoresheet the first time the visiting Riveters meet the Whitecaps. That’s because not only is Kessel a returning hero, a Madison, Wis., native who became an adopted daughter in the State of Hockey, but she played a part in Team USA’s gold medal victory at the Pyeongchang Olympics, one of the biggest accomplishment’s in the national women’s team program’s history and the first gold for Team USA on the Olympic stage in 20 years. Kessel’s tournament was quiet by her standards — she had one assist in five games — but she came up big with a shootout-tying tally against the rival Canadians in the gold medal game. “For me, it was one of the greatest things sharing that experience with my teammates,” Kessel said of her Olympic experience. “But now I love sharing my medal with other people. You don’t even understand how rare it is for somebody to hold the gold medal. It’s yours, but it’s really inspiring to see how it changes somebody’s day.”
Being able to share the gold medal has been important to Kessel, too, because it helps her inspire the next generation of women’s players. And Kessel believes that in signing with the Riveters she can show young women that there are options to continue beyond the college game, that a professional career is possible.
“It’s great that we have these leagues so we have somewhere to train and play and continue, because if these leagues weren’t in place, I really don’t know if I’d continue to play,” Kessel said. “It’s tough to go play in a men’s league and train for four years doing that. It’s pretty cool that these leagues are around, and that’s really what helps me go to the next Olympics. And right now, I want to play in the next Olympics. It’s a long four years, but if I still have the same drive and passion for the game, I’ll continue to play.”
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