Feb 4, 2014, 10:39 AM EDT
SOCHI, Russia — As if scripted, Amanda Kessel received the puck at her own blue line, danced around the greatest player of all time and roofed a two-on-one wrister past the best goaltender from the previous Olympics.
On April 9, Kessel potted a 3-2 game winner over Canada with 16 minutes, 51 seconds left in the World Championships final.
The goal provided anecdotal evidence of a shift in the sport, the latest in a U.S.-Canada teeter-totter over the last 25 years. It also brightened Kessel’s already shining star to blinding in women’s hockey circles. The younger sister of NHL All-Star Phil Kessel continued to carve her own name.
Then she vanished.
Kessel wouldn’t play again the rest of 2013 outside some practice tryout games, hampered by a hip injury that may have been related to torn labrum surgery in 2012.
She returned for four exhibitions against high school boys teams in January, but the Olympics will mark her first official games in 10 months.
“I’ve been battling really hard,” Kessel said a few hours after landing in Sochi, “but I’m feeling good.”
It took about five seconds.
The puck slid to Kessel at her own blue line, near the boards. From the other direction, Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser headed straight into her path from the center line.
Consider Kessel’s situation. She looked up to a player 13 years older, half a foot taller and 50 pounds bigger skating toward her.
And not just any Canadian. Wickenheiser has competed in every Olympic hockey tournament, winning three gold medals and one silver. She also played softball at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
The EA Sports video game NHL 13 included Wickenheiser as one of the first two playable female characters for the first time in the series’ history.
In a blink, Kessel used her best skills — craftiness and deception — to let the puck slide, wiggle around Wickenheiser and leave the stalwart stuck in her skates.
Kessel was 10 feet beyond Wickenheiser by the time she regained the puck and reached the Canadian blue line.
She then stick handled up the right side with an opportunity to pass on the two-on-one. The Canadian defender slowly committed to Kessel, but she didn’t budge. Kessel measured and beat Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados top shelf.
Szabados, who has long excelled in boys and men’s leagues, shut out the U.S. in 2010 Olympic gold-medal game in Vancouver.
So, consider the impact of the score.
Kessel had skated around and shot past two symbols of Canada’s recent Olympic dominance over the U.S. for what proved to be the World Championship-deciding goal. In Ottawa, no less.
The Americans won a major title on Canadian ice for the first time in seven tries since 1990 and became favorites for their first Olympic gold since 1998.
The storyline became clear. The U.S. was young, fast and skilled. Three-time reigning Olympic champion Canada was aging. The Olympics were 10 months away.
“It feels good,” Kessel said that night. “It couldn’t feel any better.”
Kessel underwent hip surgery to repair a torn labrum in June 2012 that reportedly kept her off skates for two months.
It didn’t appear to affect her much after a sporadic start to that 2012-13 NCAA campaign, but before the season finished, the pain set in again.
“It was pretty brutal,” said Kessel, who missed back-to-back games at the end of February. “I only had a couple more weeks of playing with it though.”
Her final game was that championship triumph over Canada on April 9. The golden goal was just her second in five games in Ottawa. She co-led the tournament with six assists.
After an offseason break, Kessel said she reinjured her hip before the U.S.’ Bring on the World Tour from October through January.
Kessel didn’t play a second during the tour, which included seven games against Canada.
After losing three straight to Canada, the U.S. won the final four games following the shock resignation of Canadian coach Dan Church on Dec. 12.
Kessel watched some games in person and others on TV, experiencing the ratcheted animosity — including a line brawl — as a fly on the wall.
“I’m usually not one to fight,” Kessel said. “So I knew I wouldn’t have been in there.”
She said the decision was made in November that she wouldn’t play again until January.
“We had a lot of traveling and road trips,” Kessel said. “Just to the point where I wasn’t really getting better on the road. … They recognized that I did need to get better.”
She also questioned internally whether she would be 100 percent for the Olympics.
“I was worried a little bit,” Kessel said.
She had taken pain-killing injections. Her rehab included core work and weight room time that she called grueling. Her teammates didn’t lose sight of her struggle.
“We’ve supported her all year long,” said Julie Chu, the only member of the 21-woman U.S. Olympic Team who was also on either of the 2002 or 2006 squads. “She’s worked her way back and earned her spot on this team. She’s worked so hard to be here. You see that on a lot of teams where there might be some injuries early on. It’s really about the dedication of the player and how much they’re going to be committed to the off-ice rehab, which is a lonely road sometimes to get back on the ice.”
Kessel and teammates agreed that she had little, if any, rust when she returned for four games against high school boys teams last month.
“I felt better than I thought I would,” Kessel said.
Kessel is short on words but not on personality. She’s a noted prankster, with reports of alterations to teammates’ skates, sticks and helmets with humorous but not harmful results. Her Twitter bio interestingly reads, “NHL player with the Minnesota Gophers,” though she’s as reticent as she is competitive. She did little to no interviews in the three months leading into Sochi.
Her coach and peers are effusive.
“[Kessel is] smart, dynamic, crafty,” said Katey Stone, the first female U.S. Olympic coach. “And she’ll work her tail off.”
Kessel is expected to suit up for the Olympic opener against Finland on Saturday. Finland leaned on goalie Noora Raty, Kessel’s Minnesota teammate, to beat the U.S. in regulation for the first time three months ago in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Kessel missed that game of course, but it would seem she’s the most likely candidate to solve Raty given her familiarity with the goalie and her own unique set of skills. They were born out of her parents’ Madison, Wis., basement, practicing with her brothers growing up.
“She’s so deceptive,” Chu said. “She’s one of those players, when the puck’s on her stick, you kind of have to give her a little space because you’re not sure if she’s going to blow by you or kind of do a quick dangle and dish it off to someone else. I think her craftiness is definitely a key.”
Kessel played last year on perhaps the fastest line in the world as a right wing with Kendall Coyne and center Brianna Decker. They were on the ice for all three goals in the World Championships gold-medal win over Canada.
Those five seconds in Ottawa and that victory over Canada are so far the peak of what’s been a four-year ascent since graduating from famed Minnesota boarding school Shattuck-St. Mary’s. It also produced U.S. and Canada men’s captains Zach Parise and Sidney Crosby.
Before the Vancouver Games, brother Phil found Amanda in tears picking her up at an airport after she was cut from Olympic Team consideration.
“She’s ready to rock,” Chu said.
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