- Craig Custance
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TO UNDERSTAND THE hyper-competitiveness that fuels America's new first family of hockey, head to their parents' basement in Madison, Wis. That's where Phil, the Maple Leafs' leading scorer through Dec. 4, and Amanda, whom some consider the best women's hockey player on the planet, honed their lethal shots. It's also where the Kessel-house pingpong champion is crowned.
Amanda, 22, is the reigning champ after beating Phil, four years her senior, in a match that ended with her running for her life. "I beat him and had this little grin on my face. We try not to celebrate that much," Amanda says. "I started walking to the stairs. Next thing I know, he's coming after me. I ran as fast as I could. I don't know what he would've done if he caught me. But he didn't catch me."
Opponents know the feeling. With her unparalleled anticipation and speed, Amanda is always one step ahead of everyone on the ice. The college player of the year fought injuries to lead Minnesota to a national championship and a 41-0-0 record in 2013, then scored the game-winning goal for Team USA against Canada in the world championship. "Each year she's gotten more flawless, if that's even possible," says U.S. teammate Megan Bozek. After Amanda's golden goal, Phil's phone lit up with text messages saying he had a lot to live up to thanks to his sister.
Phil proudly took it in stride -- but also kept pace. He scored 20 goals in a lockout-shortened 2013 season, leading Toronto back to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. In October he signed an eight-year contract extension with the Leafs worth $64 million.
Both players are already stars in their respective hockey universes, but come February they're poised to break away in front of millions more at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. "Amanda is a dominating, explosive player, and so is Phil," says Flames exec Brian Burke, who is one of the architects of the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team. Amanda is making her Olympics debut, and Phil scored once in six games as part of the men's team that won silver in Vancouver in 2010. The expectations this time are higher. On a recent scouting mission, Team USA GM David Poile saw a fully developed forward. Kessel skated through the entire Devils team, split the defense and scored. "I'm not sure I would've seen that play four years ago," Poile says. "He's a game breaker."
Amanda went to Vancouver as a fan but left before Phil's final game. She had high school classes to attend. This time she'll join him for the duration -- and attack the same goal.
In ESPN The Magazine's Interview Issue, Craig Custance writes that the medal hopes of two teams may hinge on one family as Amanda and Phil Kessel stage a sibling power play in Sochi.