Flashback to February 22nd, 2018, and Team USA and Team Canada are battling for a gold medal in the women's ice hockey tournament at the Winter Olympics. This was a rematch of the gold medal game four years earlier, when Canada took gold. The game in PyeongChang went to a shootout. Amanda Kessel went fourth for Team USA and scored. Two rounds later, the U.S. won.
It has been nearly 16 months since that game, and in America, the effect has been monumental. USA Hockey states that the number of females playing hockey in the country has seen a 4.35% increase from the 2017-18 season to the 2018-19 season, more than nine times the increase in boys and men during the same time frame. Kessel was one of the biggest parts of that team, and is now a big part of growing girls hockey. On July 2nd, 2019, the New York Rangers announced a girls hockey initiative to grow the game throughout the tri-state area, with Kessel serving as the official ambassador. The Junior Ranger girls hockey recreation league will be for girls age 11-14, and there will be clinics and programs for girls 14 and under at 13 different rinks. SI KIDS met up with Kessel at Madison Square Garden in New York. “It’s a really great mission that I’m proud to be a part of,” Kessel says.
Since Kessel and her teammates won silver at the 2014 Olympics, the number of girls ages eight and younger playing hockey in America has seen a 48% increase. The success of the recent Olympic teams is helping grow hockey. Kessel thinks that the program the Rangers are doing will help even more. “We’re on the right track,” Kessel says.“It’s providing opportunities for girls to get on the ice and be with their team. Once girls are in that, they’ll have a great time and realize how fun it is and they’ll stick with.”
The 2018 team has grown girls hockey across the country. For Kessel, to be a part of that team is an honor. “I’m happy to be a little piece of inspiration for young girls,” she says. Just as girls are getting inspired by the most recent Olympic team, when the current players were young, there was a team to inspire them. The 1998 Olympics were the first to have women’s ice hockey as a competition. Team USA took home the gold that year, which sent shockwaves throughout the country. From that team, Kessel idolized Cammi Granato. “[She] was probably the biggest name and she was my coach and a few national camps growing up.”
Growing up in Wisconsin, Kessel played on many boys teams, and she practiced with her two brothers, Phil and Blake. Phil is a star NHL player, now on the Arizona Coyotes. Blake was drafted into the NHL in 2007. Amanda is 27, Phil is 31 and Blake is 30. “We would play against each other for fun in our basement and on the ice, I always trained with them,” the youngest Kessel said. When asked who would win a race between her and her brothers, she said Phil. “I could be a little bit biased, but I think hockey is the most fun sport to play,” she says. “I played every sport but for some reason hockey always stuck out to me, and it’s one of those sports that the locker room is such a great environment, and I don’t think you can get that anywhere else.”
For the past two seasons, the NHL has invited players from the US women’s national team, as well as the Canadian team, to the NHL skills competition, which is held the night before the all-star games, when the NHL all-stars compete in different competitions, and the winners receive $25,000. The role of the invited women is to demonstrate how contest is played, right before the NHLers take part. For the 2018 NHL skills competition, the league invited Kessel along with a pair of her teammates, and in 2019, they invited four women, including Kendall Coyne, who was able to officially partake in an event. Coyne had a better time in the fastest skater event than Clayton Keller, and Brianna Decker, who demonstrated in the premier passing event, had a better time than Leon Draisaitl, the official winner. Despite this, Kessel doesn’t think we’ll ever see a woman in the NHL. “As a woman, I don’t think, so, but I think exposure and what Kendall did is amazing.”
Many of the Olympic Team members, Kessel included, play in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). Kessel’s team is the Metropolitan Riveters, based in Newark, New Jersey. This past season, the NWHL set records in attendance, viewership and merchandise. Kessel thinks that the U.S. winning gold at the Olympics contributed to that. “Bringing home gold was a huge exposure for the sport in general. We didn’t realize the impact it made on the country until we returned.”
At the moment, women across the USA and Canada, led by the Olympic team members, are refusing to play in a North American league until a league with a livable wage is founded. In the 2018-19 season, Kessel was one of the league’s highest paid players. In an interview with CBC, she said she made $8,000 this past season. “It’s still in the works,” she says. “The most important thing is that we have a group of women that are unified, and that’s what we’re going to need in order to push hockey to what’s best. We are only going to be a small part of that now, but our kids and the future generations will be the ones benefitting.”