DURHAM, N.H. – When Minnesota senior Amanda Kessel uncorked her game-tying goal in the first minute of the third period of Friday’s Women's Frozen Four semifinal matchup with Wisconsin, it almost felt like the way things used to be. Before Kessel was out of hockey for nearly two years.
Kessel, once the best women’s collegiate hockey player in the country, had been kept off the ice since the gold medal game of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Kessel was a member of United States Olympic Team then, fresh off the season before when she was named the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award winner after notching a nation-leading 101 points (only the fourth woman ever to eclipse 100 points in a season). But some time before Sochi, Kessel suffered a concussion, the exact date of which has never been disclosed by Kessel or Minnesota coach Brad Frost.
A promising Olympics in which she tallied three goals and six points put the U.S. in position to win gold. However, Kessel didn’t register a shot or point in her 17-plus minute of ice time. Later, she withdrew from classes at Minnesota because of concussion symptoms.
What followed was a long road back filled with treatment and recovery, the exact details of which have not been disclosed.
With her future with the Gophers and at school unclear, Frost made an announcement this past summer: Kessel would be foregoing her final season of eligibility at Minnesota.
GameCenter: Minnesota 3, Wisconsin 2
Shortly after, the narrative changed: Kessel was enrolling in classes in the fall. On Feb. 5, she made her return to the ice in a 3-0 win against North Dakota. In 12 games back, she has 10 goals and six assists.
Now, Kessel is on the biggest stage of college hockey once again, a place she left when last with the Gophers in the 2012-13 season. That season ended with Minnesota winning a second consecutive national title with a record of 41-0-0.
“I think it just makes it all worth it,” Kessel said of her long journey back. “People go through difficult things in life. I think it’s made me stronger. I’ve learned a lot, and I think I’m a lot more appreciative of things that I get, our team gets or just being able to live life or play sports. I’m grateful that I’m back with the team.”
And had it not been for her third-period snipe past Wisconsin goalkeeper – and Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award finalist – Ann-Renee Desbiens 27 ticks into the final frame, her return to the spotlight might have been short-lived. The Gophers topped Wisconsin 3-2 in overtime to move on to Sunday’s final against Boston College.
“It means a lot to me,” Kessel said. “I’m really proud of our team and I wanted to do anything I could to help our team and program.”
Frost, who has seen all the good and all the struggles from Kessel up close, said her critical goal didn’t surprise the team.
“We’re really happy for Amanda and she said from Day 1 that she was back, and that she just wants to do anything she can to help our team,” he said. “She’s been just a phenomenal leader for us. She’s had great experiences, but when you’re out of the game for [that long] and you think your career’s over, you come back with a new spirit about you and you’re rejuvenated and you want to do everything you can to make an impact. It was just awesome to see that.
“I know our team was jacked up, but that was a big goal for us.”
Now Kessel and the rest of the Gophers are back in the title game for the fifth consecutive season, with three national titles in the past four years including last year’s championship season. But Kessel missed the 2015 title because of injury and missed the 2013 crown while redshirting to play with Team U.S.A. So Kessel too is trying to repeat as national champions, just four years apart.
For a player who’s been involved in huge wins on all stages of women’s hockey, Kessel placed Friday’s win in her top three.
Which are the other two? She can’t exactly point that out when asked, but she settled on one thought: “It’s one of the best feelings that I’ve ever had.”