A concussion didn’t just bench Amanda Kessel. It put her all the way on the couch.
For months, the Team USA ice hockey player couldn’t work out and tried not to even go outside, so she filled her days with mind-numbing hours in front of the television. Kessel had headaches and was confused, her brain too foggy to have a decent conversation.
“Sometimes still it’s hard for me to think I almost lost two years of my life because I really was doing nothing,” she said. “But that’s why I do feel so fortunate.”
Kessel, 26, is back on her second Olympic team and the coaches and fellow players feel fortunate to have her. Kessel, a 5-foot-5 forward, is expected to make her second straight Olympic team.
“Look at her,” said U.S. women’s national team head coach Robb Stauber. “She’s not the biggest, she’s not the strongest, she’s not the fastest, but when you put all of her skills together, you have this dynamic player.”
“She has a championship mentality,” added team captain Meghan Duggan. “She’s committed to winning and being the best she can be, so to have her back on our team, it’s unbelievable. I’m really proud of her, honestly, to see how hard she’s worked. It’s a huge boost for our team and certainly going to help us on the scoresheet as well.”
Kessel’s troubles began when she suffered a concussion in a scrimmage prior to the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, where she helped Team USA win the silver medal. A few months later, symptoms returned that debilitated her, jeopardizing the future that looked so bright after she won the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award and scored the game-winning goal at the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championship.
Kessel took a year off from the University of Minnesota and mostly stayed home, except when she was consulting doctors. She tried to eat healthy and not exert herself.
“I was sad,” Kessel said. “It was not good times in my life. It’s like, ‘What do I do?’ or ‘Who am I?’ I guess in ways it taught me to grow up or look at different aspects of life, but I never lost that passion or love for hockey and I would die to be able to go on the ice any day throughout those years. I was having nightmares about not being able to play.”
She could hardly watch hockey on TV, Kessel said, “because I really missed it and was that upset that I couldn’t play it.”
She needed something to take her mind off the sport that had dominated her life – anything
“I got to the point where I would set an alarm and try to be excited for my coffee in the morning,” Kessel said.
As the months went by, a year and a half going on two years, she thought her career might be over. She lost weight, mostly muscle mass that she’s still working to put back on.
“I wanted to believe that I was going to play again,” Kessel said, “but when you have those kinds of symptoms, it becomes scary and I just wanted to be able to hang out with friends again at that point.”
In the summer of 2015, Dr. Michael “Micky” Collins of the University of Pittsburgh, which has a sports concussion program, supplied the answer.
It meant getting off the couch.
“I went from more of a sit-at-home-do-nothing to like really-get-after-it and kind of attack your own symptoms,” Kessel said. “And that approach really worked for me. It was tough to grasp – ‘Why do you want me to make myself feel worse or crappy?’”
Even though she couldn’t manage a 10-minute walk, Kessel started with 30 minutes of cardio a day. Collins also encouraged her to go out with her friends to restaurants and loud bars.
“It was a tough adjustment for a while, like I would feel terrible,” Kessel said, “but it really did change everything.”
She got back on the ice in the fall of 2015, working out by herself. Collins assured her she was not more susceptible to another concussion because of her ordeal.
“When I came back, I knew there was going to be a time that I wasn’t scared about anything,” Kessel said.
By the end of December, she was back training with the Gophers, and returned to competition in February 2016 as a starter.
That morning, Kessel woke up excited about more than coffee. She would be playing in her first game in almost two years.
“I’ll never forget being announced on that day and I was tearing up before the game,” she said. “It was a really emotional time.”
In March, Minnesota won another NCAA title, with Kessel scoring the game-winning goal.
“It was like nothing changed,” Kessel said. “When I got back, I obviously was missing somewhat of a step, but it came back quickly and I had never been happier to play.”
She became the highest-paid player in the National Women's Hockey League, negotiating her own $26,000 contract with the New York Riveters.
And Kessel reached out to USA Hockey, which welcomed her, but required her to work her way back onto the national team.
At the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship last April, Kessel scored her first international goal in more than three years.
“It was almost like relief,” she said. “It had been so long since real international competition.”
“She wasn’t by any means totally healthy,” Stauber said, “like she was not 100 percent Amanda Kessel. There’s no way. We knew it. But what we did know was that every time you put her on the ice, she was going to be absolutely relentless, shift after shift after shift. That’s a seed that was planted probably when she was 5 years old. It’s just who she is. She loves the game of hockey.”
It’s in her blood. Kessel’s brother, Phil, is a two-time Olympian and won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and her other brother Blake has played in the minor leagues.
“They’ve been my biggest inspiration, but also they never took it easy on me,” said Amanda, who grew up in Wisconsin. “Maybe they would change the game a little bit, but it was like they weren’t going to let me win anything. When I would win, I celebrated right in their face, and when they won they celebrated right in mine.
“I guess I was just lucky to have that competitive nature almost built into my life and I think we all helped each other. It’s kind of like a driving force of what’s gotten me to where I am.”
The Kessel kids would make up games, like throw a tennis ball and catch it with one hand. The first person to bobble it lost. Last Christmas, Amanda and Phil had an epic Scrabble game. Amanda thought she had won and went upstairs to change clothes. “All of a sudden I hear a scream downstairs,” she said. “He was like, ‘I found a word!’ So we ended up in a tie.”
Kessel is one of 23 players on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and one of 10 returning Olympians on the squad.
“Right now I can honestly say I feel great and can only see my game getting better from here on out,” Kessel said.
Hilary Knight said that to have Kessel’s “skill and caliber of professionalism back is going to be instrumental. Some players, there’s something about them that just captivates you and she’s one of those players."
Monique Lamoureux-Morando said Kessel’s playmaking ability is unmatched.
“She’s very creative with the puck,” Lamoueux-Morando said. “She moves the puck really well, she anticipates well and reads off other players. Just her hockey IQ is way up there.”
Team USA played Canada eight times this fall leading up to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, with the U.S. winning three of the games.
While Team USA is the four-time reigning world champion, Canada has won the last four Olympic gold medals.
“I respect them and I hate them,” Kessel said. “This summer my brother, Blake, married a Canadian hockey player (Courtney Birchard). She had just retired, but she was on the national team for quite a while, so a lot of the Canadian girls were at her wedding. So we were cordial there. Since the season hadn’t started, it was OK, but now I don’t know if I’d say much more than hi.”
She’s much more willing to engage with complete strangers who are seeking help for their concussions.
“I have people that reach out all the time to me and I’ll try and help as much as possible,” Kessel said. “Obviously I’m not a doctor, but there are some things that helped me and maybe it can help somebody else, or I can tell them the doctors that I went to. If somebody has been sitting at home a lot and hasn’t tried more of an active approach, that’s what helped me more than anything.”
She even thinks she could take her story to a wider audience, perhaps in a movie. She could see Elisha Cuthbert, the actress who married NHL player Dion Phaneuf, playing her.
“Or it could be a documentary,” Kessel suggested. “It’s a crazy, crazy thing to go through.”