The Gophers men’s hockey team suffered a setback in 2006, when Phil Kessel left for the NHL after one college season.
But for the Gophers women’s team, a crucial seed had been planted.
Younger sister Amanda Kessel was playing for the Madison (Wis.) Capitols boys’ bantam team that year and became a Minnesota fan. She continued attending Gophers games while piling up hundreds of points the next three years at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault. When it came time to pick a college, Kessel had even more reasons to choose Wisconsin than her brother did.
The Badgers had a better women’s program than the Gophers, at the time. And Wisconsin’s coach, Mark Johnson, was one of her father’s childhood friends.
Yet she still picked Minnesota.
“I always knew in my heart I wanted to come here,” Kessel said.
Kessel was determined to help turn the Gophers back into a national powerhouse.
Last year, she helped deliver the team’s first NCAA title since 2005, and she has battled through injuries this season to lead the nation in goals (43) and assists (52).
The junior winger is a major reason Minnesota (38-0) is riding a 46-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal against North Dakota (26-11-1).
The three finalists for this year’s Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the nation’s top player, are all Gophers — Kessel, goaltender Noora Raty and defenseman Megan Bozek.
“Amanda Kessel has got to be the front-runner because it’s off the charts for her,” Harvard coach Katey Stone said last month. “She’s such a dynamic player.”
Stone will coach Team USA at the 2014 Olympics, and Kessel and Bozek have been named to the preliminary roster.
Raty, a two-time Olympian from Finland, predicts Kessel will establish herself in Sochi as one of the best players in the world.
“Just her speed — that’s what separates her from other players,” Raty said. “I haven’t seen many other players who have good speed and good hands, but she has both.”
Born to skate Kessel said she can’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t love being at the rink. She was 3 when she started skating and joined her first Madison mites boys’ team at age 4.
“I think the main thing was just trying to keep up with her older brothers,” said her father, Phil Kessel Sr., a former quarterback in the Canadian Football League.
Phil Jr. has blossomed into an NHL All-Star who notched 37 goals and 45 assists last year for the Maple Leafs. The middle brother, Blake, went to New Hampshire and is now a defenseman for Trenton in the ECHL.
While the youngest Kessel was in high school, the Wisconsin women’s program won NCAA titles in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
“It would have been easy to jump on that bandwagon,” Kessel said. “But I kind of wanted to go somewhere else and help the Gophers win again.”
Her freshman year, Kessel watched the Badgers win their fourth national championship. But last year she racked up 80 points and scored the first goal in the NCAA championship game as Minnesota knocked off Wisconsin 4-2.
Winning that game was “incredible,” Kessel said, but she was playing in pain. Late in the season, she suffered a hip injury that would require surgery in June. She didn’t skate all summer but looked like she hadn’t missed a beat in the fall.
She separated a shoulder and quickly returned, but late in the season she suffered another undisclosed injury.
The Gophers won’t say what’s bothering Kessel, so as not to give their opponents an edge, but she missed the final regular-season series and played sparingly in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Averaging three points per game, she had been on pace to break the NCAA single-season points record of 114, set by Minnesota’s Natalie Darwitz in 2005. Kessel had a streak of 40 consecutive games with a point ended in last Friday’s 5-0 victory over Ohio State in the WCHA semifinals.
She came back to assist on the first goal in Saturday’s 2-0 conference championship win over North Dakota.
Plenty at stake When healthy, Kessel is a force. In three regular-season games against North Dakota, she racked up 13 points — eight goals and five assists.
Last Saturday, “Amanda was a threat every time she was on the ice, and that’s all you can ask from a player,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “She’s playing through some injuries, but that’s OK. This time of year you do everything you can to get on the ice, and she’s doing that.”
Frost is going to enjoy this while he can. If Kessel makes the Olympic team, she’ll miss all of next season. She plans to return to Minnesota the following year, however. She’ll have a fourth year of eligibility remaining and a sports management degree to complete. T
hat’s good news for the Gophers but not for their opponents.