Her teammates call her “Grandma” now, and she refers to some of them as “the young kids.” Amanda Kessel, 24, cracks up just thinking about it. Considering how depressed she felt at the depths of her concussion recovery, the heckling doesn’t bother her one bit.
After three years away from the Gophers, Kessel is savoring every moment, knowing she’s only been back for 10 games, and the end is almost here.
Minnesota plays Princeton in the NCAA quarterfinals Saturday, for a trip to the Women’s Frozen Four next week in Durham, N.H.
Win or lose, this will be Kessel’s last game for the Gophers at Ridder Arena, the scene of so many triumphs since her college career began in 2010. As a junior three years ago, she won the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s top player, and helped lead Minnesota to a second consecutive NCAA title.
That was before the headfirst crash into the boards for Team USA, before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, before the symptoms came back and just wouldn’t go away.
Kessel was devastated, wondering whether she’d ever play college hockey again. She’s been coming to Gophers hockey games since 2005, when her brother, Phil, played for their men’s team on his way to the NHL.
Earlier this week, Kessel climbed into the seats at Ridder and reflected on how much this comeback has meant to her.
“I almost get emotional talking about it,” she said, glancing at the ice. “It’s been sad lately, thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m happy to be back, but it’ll be over in a week or two.’ ”
Fog settles in
Kessel always planned on returning to the Gophers after missing the 2013-14 college season to play for the U.S. Olympic team. She’d suffered one previous concussion, in high school at Shattuck St. Mary’s. The next one came in a scrimmage leading up to the Olympics.
“It was just kind of accidental,” she said. “Somebody tripped, and I just went headfirst into the boards. I felt off afterward. It took a couple months, but then I felt good again before the Olympics.”
Kessel missed exhibition games with what Team USA called “a lower-body injury.” Feeling symptom-free, she tied for the team lead in points in Sochi, with three goals and three assists. She played 17 minutes in the gold medal game loss to Canada without registering a shot on goal.
About two weeks later, she said, her symptoms returned.
“It was just kind of crazy,” she said. “I never really took another hit. I don’t know if it was all the adrenaline from the Olympics, but I never felt anything for so long. Then, I just knew something wasn’t quite right.”
Instead of returning to the Gophers that fall, she was at the Carrick Brain Center in Marietta, Ga. Her Olympic teammate, Josephine Pucci, and Penguins star Sidney Crosby were among those who had recovered from concussions with Dr. Ted Carrick’s help.
“I think they helped my eyes and vestibular [inner ear] problems,” Kessel said. “But I just couldn’t seem to get rid of any more of my symptoms.”
For months, she dealt with pounding headaches and nausea.
“Everything’s just kind of a blur,” she said. “You’re just not yourself ever. It’s tough because no one can see it. Anyone that you’d meet would think that you’re a normal, healthy living girl. But you feel awful every day. … Your whole life is just flipped upside-down.”
Kessel, who turned down interview requests during her absence, said she was also suffering from depression.
“Yeah, I don’t mind talking about that at all because I think other people — kids — if they get in that situation, people can relate to them and know how hard it is,” she said. “You get through it. You need some support, but just keep trucking.”
Getting active again
The turning point came last August. Kessel was urged by someone from her hometown of Madison, Wis., to go see Dr. Michael Collins at the University of Pittsburgh.
She felt so miserable for 18 months, she stopped working out. Collins stressed that it was time to get active again.
“I hardly would take a five-minute walk [before seeing Collins],” she said. “You’re thinking, ‘Why would I do anything if I feel terrible?’ But that’s what my body and brain had been used to my entire life.”
She started doing 30 minutes of cardio exercises per day, pushing through at first when she wasn’t feeling well. The fog finally started clearing. By last September, she was back on skates again.
After re-enrolling in school, she still had one season of NCAA eligibility remaining, but this was her final year to use it.
The university medical staff cleared Kessel to resume practicing with the Gophers in January. She’d been through extensive neuropsychological testing, helping assure doctors that her brain had healed.
One big goal left
Kessel’s first game back came against North Dakota on Feb. 5, when she reunited with two-time All-America Hannah Brandt, her linemate from the team’s 41-0 season three years ago. Their other linemate is freshman Sarah Potomak, who was 13 when Kessel’s college career began.
“It’s awesome to have [Kessel] back and seeing her battle through something so big,” said junior Dani Cameranesi, the team’s leading scorer. “People who watched her growing up are now getting the chance to play with her.”
In 10 games, Kessel has six goals, five assists.
“Her confidence has grown,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “She was very tentative against North Dakota that first series, and that’s natural, I think. But she’s just been getting better and more comfortable and back to herself every game.”
After losing 1-0 to Wisconsin in the WCHA tournament championship last Sunday, the Gophers enter the NCAA tourney as the No. 3 seed. A win Saturday could set up a rematch with the Badgers next Friday in the Frozen Four semifinals.
Kessel is on track to graduate this summer with a degree in sports management. After that, she’ll set her sights on the 2018 Olympics.
“Grandma” Kessel knows those thoughts can wait.
“Coming in halfway through [the season], I’m fully energized,” she said. “And I don’t want anything else but to end my career by winning a national championship.”