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Putting school on hold to chase gold

The nation’s best college hockey player will take a year off from college to play in the Olympics, but will return to Minnesota for her senior year

Amanda Kessel is spending some time abroad this school year.  

But she won’t be studying the classics in Oxford or brushing up on her French in Paris. Instead, Kessel will be preparing for the taxing final exam in women’s hockey: the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. To get there, though, she put her life as a student and star college athlete on hold one season after being named the nation’s top player while leading Minnesota to consecutive national championships. 

After a year training and playing with the U.S. national team, Kessel will return to Minnesota to finish her degree in sport management and take the ice for a final season. And while the opportunity to train and compete with the world’s elite has been exhilarating, she misses the relationships she forged over three years at Minnesota.  

“It’s definitely a complete change from this year to last year,” Kessel said. “I know in the beginning it was a little bit tough for me coming here. Obviously a great opportunity, but at the same time not being able to graduate with my class at college and really missing out on those friendships for a whole year, it’s tough keeping in contact with everybody.”

Despite her mother’s efforts to steer her to warm-weather sports like tennis and soccer, Kessel followed her older brothers to the ice. Phil Kessel is a right winger for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs; Blake Kessel is a defenseman for the Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL. Before they got there, though, the three siblings – born only four years apart –tussled together on the ice. 

“They’re why I got started,” Kessel said. “And I don’t think they took it easy on me.”

Kessel was not only good enough to play with her brothers, but in a youth league against other boys. By college she was heavily recruited by top programs like Minnesota and Wisconsin. Though she was raised in Wisconsin, she followed Phil’s footsteps to Minnesota.  

She was conference rookie of the year as a freshman, led the Gophers with 80 points – good for fourth in the NCAA in points per game – as a sophomore, and was the nation’s top scorer with 101 points last year. She was one of the pillars of a record-setting 62-game winning streak that spanned three seasons. When North Dakota snapped the streak on Nov. 17, Kessel was 1,500 miles away, training with the national team in Boston. When she’s not there, she’s bouncing around rinks in North America, scrimmaging against teams from Canada, Finland and Sweden, among others.  

While she will relish taking part in the opening ceremonies, she said it will be difficult to remember her Olympic experience fondly unless Team USA captures its first gold medal since 1998. After Olympic excitement fades, it won’t quite be time to pursue a coaching career or play professionally in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. She has one year of eligibility remaining and is eager to return to the packed arenas and familiar hallways of college life. 

“It’s already been a great year,” Kessel said. “But I’m excited that I actually have a year left in school.”