Hockey

Tony Care - Sunday Feb. 9, 2014 15:27 ET

Amanda Kessel ready to take women’s hockey to the next level

U.S. sniper successor to Hayley Wickenheiser as game’s marquee player

Amanda Kessel ready to emerge
American hockey star Amanda Kessel is the successor to Hayley Wickenheiser as the game’s premier player. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Amanda Kessel doesn’t like to dwell on the talk.

Reluctant to even address the topic, the humble 22-year-old American star only offers a minor concession to being recognized as the world’s best female hockey player.

“Depends on the day, but yeah, I think I have a lot of confidence in myself and trust my abilities,” said Kessel, whose U.S. team prepares for its second Olympic game against Switzerland Monday morning (5 a.m. ET) following a 3-1 win over Finland in Saturday's opener.

With Canadian icon Hayley Wickenheiser clearly nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career, the younger sister of Toronto Maple Leafs sniper and Olympian Phil Kessel is ready to take women’s hockey to the next level.

Want proof?

Last season Amanda Kessel led the University of Minnesota Gophers to a second straight NCAA title, a campaign that also saw her score 46 goals and 55 assists in just 36 games. She saved her best moment for the gold-medal game against Canada at the 2013 world hockey championship in Ottawa.

The teams were deadlocked 2-2 early in the third period when Kessel took the puck from her own blue-line, blew past Wickenheiser and raced toward the Canadian net. Instead of deferring on the 2-on-1 break, something usually seen in the women's game, Kessel unleashed a blistering wrist shot that paralyzed Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados.

The pro-Canadian crowd, which included Prime Minister Stephen Harper, went eerily still.

“It was exciting and I was like almost shocked at how there was no noise, but I guess I should’ve expected that,” said Kessel, whose goal secured a 3-2 victory and the American’s fourth world title in five years.

“Just beating Canada in that type of game and environment, and having the crowd really go silent; that’s definitely one of my favourite memories.”

Kessel’s ‘special gift’

Kessel, like big brother Phil, possesses terrific speed to go with a deft shot. In many ways her game should rub off on the younger women coming up the ranks.

“She’s a great player,” a proud Phil Kessel told CBCSports.ca’s Mike Brophy. “She’ll do unbelievable for the women’s Olympic team. She won everything last year. I’ve always known she’s a really good player. I’ve skated with her, she’s special. She’s got a special gift.”

That “special gift” may go a long way in determining whether the U.S. women can break Canada’s gold-medal stranglehold of the last three Olympics.

While the Americans have owned much of the world championships in the last five years, they’ve continually fallen short in the Olympics, with the exception of the inaugural women's tournament in 1998. 

Kessel, a late cut from the 2010 Vancouver Games, watched the heart-wrenching 2-0 defeat from a far.

Now it’s her time.

She acknowledges the storied battles between the U.S. and Canada have been fierce, but also unique due to the lack of competition from other countries.

“It’s different than other rivalries that you’ll get because of how long it’s gone on and really [we’ve] been the two dominating teams,” said Kessel.

To offset that problem, the two hockey powers played a six-game exhibition series throughout this season, using the games as the main lead up to the Sochi Olympics.

Advantage USA

The Canadians started well, winning the opening two games, plus a round-robin victory during this past November’s Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y. They would go on to beat Finland in the final.

But a strange turn dramatically shifted the momentum in the American’s favour.

Canada's head coach Dan Church announced his stunning resignation — Hockey Night in Canada’s Cassie Campbell-Pascall felt he was pushed out — with less than two months before the Sochi Games. Rattled Canadian players then lost 5-1 that same night to the U.S., in Calgary under the guidance of assistants Danielle Goyette and Lisa Haley.

Kevin Dineen was picked to replace Church, but the change behind the bench had no effect on the Americans, who reeled off the final three victories.

The series featured the U.S.'s superior speed, Canada’s strength in goal, and two line brawls. The first two attributes will play prominent roles when the nations face off in the preliminary round Wednesday, and again in the likely gold-medal rematch on Thursday, Feb. 20.

“You're matching yourself up against your opponent [Canada] and that’s usually the toughest team for us to play,” said Kessel.

Beating Canada in the round-robin game would no doubt give the Americans a huge confidence boost should the bitter rivals meet again for the biggest prize in women’s hockey.

And as Kessel showed in Ottawa, all it takes is one lethal shot for Canada’s Olympic dominance to end in Sochi.

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