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.