Kessel ready for Olympic challenge
The strangest part was the silence.
Last April, during the gold-medal game between Team Canada and Team USA in the women's hockey World Championships, Amanda Kessel found herself with the puck along the boards leaving the defensive zone. After banking the puck off the boards to spring her past a Canadian defender, she was on a breakaway, with a chance to crack a 2-2 tie.
"The whole arena seemed silent," Kessel said, in recalling the moment months later.
It actually got quieter.
On a 2-on-1 with Brianna Decker, Kessel zeroed in on Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados, then roofed a wrister that would have sent Szabados' water bottle into the stands if it wasn't attached.
It stunned an Ottawa crowd eager to see Team Canada win in the biggest tournament remaining leading up to the February Olympics. Instead, it was the game-winner for the Americans.
"It just went silent. That's another feeling that I never really experienced," Kessel said. "It almost didn't set in right away that I scored."
A goal horn, a flyby past the Team USA bench for a little celebration and Britney Spears' "Till the World Ends" blaring over the arena speakers broke the silence and the tie game.
The goal held and the American women hockey team had another World Championship gold, capping an incredible year for Kessel. As a junior at the University of Minnesota, she scored 46 goals helping the Golden Gophers to a 41-0 record and Frozen Four title. She won the Patty Kazmaier Award for the top player in NCAA division I women's hockey. She had the biggest goal in the biggest game that year for Team USA.
At some point in June, after making the first Olympic tour roster, the enormity of her year started to sink in.
"I finally had some down time, it was a whirlwind of a season," she told ESPN The Magazine. "I don't think anything could have gone better. It was one of the most fun years of my life."
Now, to 2014.
Kessel sat out Team USA's Pre-Olympic Tour with a lower body injury but when the women's Olympic roster team was officially announced at the Winter Classic, GM Reagan Carey said it was strictly a precautionary measure to make sure the most dangerous American in hockey was ready to go in Sochi.
"We've been overly cautious," Carey said.
"Kess is awesome," said teammate Julie Chu that day. "She'll be ready to go."
And the scary thing for opposing countries is that, even if she's not completely healthy, she still has the potential to be the best player in the tournament.
Brad Frost, the women's hockey coach at Minnesota, saw Kessel find new reserves during the Golden Gophers run to the National Championship last year. There was a triple-overtime thriller against North Dakota, in which Kessel scored the goal that tied the game at two, a score that would remain into the third overtime. That game wore everybody down, but was especially taxing on a player with a bad hip.
By the time the national championship game arrived, Frost knew she wasn't close to 100 percent.
She loves to get inside the glass and do her job. That's one place where she feels comfortable. She's a humble kid. She wants to go about her business. She wants to limit her distractions and stay on task.U.S. Olympic women's hockey coach Katey Stone
"She just sucked it up and said, 'This is for all the marbles and I have to be the best player on the ice,'" Frost said. "She was. By far. She is such a competitor, she is ridiculous."
Much like her brother Phil, Amanda has little to no interest in the spotlight that can come with being an elite athlete. It's a spotlight that's about to shine brighter on the family than it ever has, threatening to drag both outside their comfort level.
On the afternoon they were named to Team USA Olympic rosters, Phil gave short, clipped answers in response to what it meant to him for both to be competing for an Olympic gold on Russian soil in the coming month. Amanda, despite her high profile, wasn't one of the players brought to the press conference. The current First Family of American hockey would be more than happy if that attention was directed elsewhere.
Still, it's coming.
"She loves to get inside the glass and do her job. That's one place where she feels comfortable. She's a humble kid," said Team USA coach Katey Stone. "She wants to go about her business. She wants to limit her distractions and stay on task."
That quiet demeanor adds a bit to the mystique. Bethany Brausen, her teammate at Minnesota, played against Kessel in high school and remembers being completely intimidated playing Shattuck St. Mary's where Kessel and Decker starred together in Minnesota.
That didn't immediately change when they became teammates.
"When we came in as freshman, I was scared crapless of her, to be honest," Brausen said.
As she got to know Kessel and the comfort level grew, she realized that a quiet disposition was part of a package that was also humble, loyal and a great teammate who could surprise everyone at times. Brausen can't say for absolute certain that Kessel was behind the trash can full of water that was leaning against her hotel room door one day, eventually splashing the room with water when the door opened but she caught a glimpse of Kessel in the peep hole.
And if there's baby powder hiding under your helmet, ready to be dumped, she's on the short list of suspects.
"She's just a stinker," Brausen said. "She's the one person on the team you know not to prank."
With a little luck, the spotlight of the Olympics will bring out all sides of her. The quiet, if mischievous, star who just wants to fit in with teammates and win a gold medal.
Brausen's one certainty is that we'd better get ready for greatness in Sochi.
"Put her on the ice, how can you not be inspired?" she said. "It's pretty special you can watch someone every single day and still be in awe."