Amanda Kessel likes to win, which does not shock those who have followed her storied career thus far. But while her status as an elite athlete is a no-brainer for anyone who watches her play, the opportunity to compete hasn’t been guaranteed.
Speaking with me with just a couple of days to go before the PWHPA takes to the ice in St. Louis for the third installment of the 2021 Secrete Dream Gap Tour, the star forward for Team Women’s Sports Foundation (New Hampshire) makes it abundantly clear that while she’s looking forward to hopefully out-scoring Team adidas (Minnesota) in their final two meetings, she’s playing for much more than bragging rights.
For every goal she nets and shift she dominates, Kessel is skating for the future of the sport as her teammates (and rivals) work to harness the full potential of women’s hockey.
PLAYING FOR THE PWHPA
I catch Kessel while she’s still in New York training daily with her skills coach in preparation for this weekend’s tournament, which like the previous two tour stops, is conducted in partnership with an NHL team. The St. Louis Blues will become the fourth NHL team to partner with the PWHPA when the players touchdown in the Show Me state, joining the New York Ranger, the Toronto Maple Leaves, and the Chicago Blackhawks, who sponsored previous showcases.
While some will argue that the PWHPA should avoid any economic reliance on the NHL, Kessel echoes her teammate Hilary Knight’s stance on embracing the partnerships, telling JWS, “it’s a good sign for us and for women’s hockey that there are these NHL clubs that are buying into helping us grow. It’s definitely a start.”
As for the tour’s success so far, Kessel notes, “I think it proves that there’s a product there, that there’s a want, and that there is a need for [the PWHPA].” And for Kessel, that’s where the NHL comes into play. “It’s really trying to keep this momentum building. That’s what’s key about having multiple NHL teams involved. What we’ve heard is that more [teams] want to have weekends, we just don’t have enough weekends.”
Kessel may be out of luck when it comes to expanding the Gregorian calendar, but as one of the association’s leaders, she’s ready to make big changes to the PWHPA.
“I personally believe that we need to turn into a league,” she says. “I think it can be a little bit confusing to people that we are just an association, and obviously that’s where we have to start, but I think that it’s the right time to move forward and announce that we are going to be a league and go from there.”
Though there’s no concrete playbook on how to transition from an association to league, in Kessel’s opinion what’s crucial is establishing now what the future should ideally look like, and setting up a solid foundation so that the PWHPA can evolve into a sustainable women’s professional league that can continue to grow. And even though the PWHPA has only existed for roughly two years, Kessel points out that their determination to build a long-lasting institution has so far yielded big-name sponsorships, broadcast opportunities, prize money, and the chance to play in legendary arenas.
TEAM USA VS. THE WORLD
As soon as the final buzzer sounds in St. Louis, the PWHPA players will temporarily disperse as some head to national team training camps to get ready for the IIHF Women’s World Championship tournament slated to start on May 6 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Team USA is slated to take on Switzerland, Finland, Russia, and Canada in the preliminary round.
Tactically, the Americans have a solid core, but as Kessel explains, there’s a notable difference in the physicality of domestic games versus international play.
“[PWHPA] games are still physical, but it’s nowhere near the same as playing Canada. And I don’t know if that’s because we don’t want to hurt any of our Team USA teammates or what it is, but definitely, there’s a difference in physicality.”
Team USA hasn’t had a chance to compete against rival Canada for more than a year. Needless to say, they’re eager to hit the ice.
“Luckily we do know each other so well, and hopefully after a few practices and games we pick up right where we left off. I know we’ve done a lot of work in the off season, continuing on Zoom calls and video sessions and mental skills. So although we’ve been away, we’ve all been trying to continue to get better.”
COMBATTING CONCUSSION STIGMA
No matter who Kessel faces off against at any point during the season, maintaining safety in the game is quite literally top of her mind.
At the age of 23, Kessel suffered a concussion during a scrimmage before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Though she went on to help Team USA win silver, she was subsequently sidelined for nearly two-years with debilitating symptoms.
Kessel battled her way back, marking her return to hockey with an NCAA championship at the University of Minnesota in 2016 before becoming the highest paid player in the NWHL when she signed with the New York Riveters later that year. She then skated her way into the history books when she made the national team again for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where Team USA beat Canada to win gold.
Though Kessel’s concussion saga ended in victory, she’s well aware of the struggle many athletes face when it comes to talking about this “unseen injury,” as she calls it.
“I think that concussions scare people.”
“Going through it, knowing that it is a real thing and that it is very hard mentally… people that haven’t been through it can’t quite know what you’re feeling.”
As with most things mired in taboo, shining a light is almost always a winning strategy to elevate the conversation. For Kessel, continuing to talk about concussions is crucial to dissolving the fear that makes brain injuries a hush-hush topic.
“I do think that the more people talk about it, the more comfortable everyone else gets.”
SHIFTING THE GAME
If she makes the 2022 Olympic squad — which to many is a foregone conclusion — Kessel will be playing for her third chance at a medal and second for gold. And while the hardware is nice, the wins aren’t just for her.
Though women’s hockey has yet to firmly establish the same infrastructure in the U.S. that other sports have, one could make the case though that the 2018 Olympic team is playing a similar role for hockey that the 99’ers played for women’s soccer in America. Whether history proves that true or not, Amanda Kessel is a name that young players will know for years to come.
Thinking about herself as a leader in her sport, Kessel says, “I think it’s a unique and special opportunity and something that I take pride in.” It’s not lost on her the impact role models have on the proliferation of the sport, noting “being able to change or improve a few people’s lives is a big deal… you don’t picture yourself in that role really growing up, and sometimes don’t even see your impact until years later.”
“I think now that’s really what I’ve been starting to see… having these young girls look up to me, it’s really a privilege.”
Kessel knows too that in order to inspire the next generation, women’s hockey needs media attention. Reflecting on the statistic that women’s sports receive a mere 4% of sports coverage, she expresses the same frustration shared by many athletes.
“That’s kind of mind blowing just to think about. How do you grow? Nobody sees you and you’re not being recognized.”
In sports, as in life, perseverance is paramount, and Kessel, a fierce competitor, isn’t shying away from the challenges presented to her and her teammates.
“What we’re doing now, continuing to push for these opportunities and playing in these showcases and being seen on TV and having people cover our stories. I think that’s really key.”
Fans nationwide will get to see the PWHPA players take to the ice on Sunday, April 11 at 6 pm ET at Centene Community Ice Center and Monday, April 12 at 7 pm ET at Enterprise Center.
Sunday’s game will broadcast on CBC for Canadian fans and will be streamed for fans in the U.S., while Monday’s game will broadcast on NBC Sports in the U.S. and SportsNet in Canada.
Team Women’s Sports Foundation will also welcome Kacey Bellamy to the group (joining from Team Calgary), as they look to make ground on Team adidas, who leads the tour 8-2 in points.