Amanda Kessel

Amanda Kessel finally ready for Olympic debut

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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.

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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.

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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.

Now?

“She’s ready to rock,” Chu said.

USOC supports athletes expressing themselves after anthem protests

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PARK CITY, Utah — The U.S. Olympic Committee supports American athletes expressing themselves at winter sports events leading up to the PyeongChang Olympics.

Some MLB, NFL and WNBA players kneeled and remained in locker rooms during the national anthem at games over the weekend.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun was asked Monday if the USOC would support American athletes peacefully protesting during the national anthem this fall and winter at pre-Games competition.

“I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t,” Blackmun said at a pre-Winter Games media summit. “We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.”

Blackmun was correct to reference the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration … is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Blackmun mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos‘ raised-fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which got them kicked out of the Games by the IOC.

The USOC has honored Smith and Carlos. They visited the White House last year with the Rio Olympic team.

“That was a seminal moment not only for the Olympic Movement, but for the U.S. Olympic team,” Blackmun said of the 1968 podium gesture. “Our stance on this has been fairly clear. We certainly recognize the rights of the athletes to express themselves.”

Olympic hopefuls were peppered with questions about possible protests at the media summit.

“One of the proudest parts of being an American is the ability to have freedom of speech,” four-time Olympian Julia Mancuso said. “I really look up to athletes who take a stand for what they believe in. I really believe as athletes that compete for Team USA, when it comes to the Olympics, I like to think it’s a special event. Not like the NFL or pro sports teams that compete every weekend. For us, it’s every four years. I’m proud for athletes that stand up for what they believe in if they really want to have a message to get out. But I like to think of us all as patriotic.”

Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic bobsled medalist, is the daughter of a U.S. Marine who served in Kuwait and spent summers in the 1980s playing at Atlanta Falcons training camps.

She said any decisions on demonstrations or whether she attends a post-Olympics Team USA White House visit come secondary to her pursuit of making the Olympic team this winter.

“I can’t afford to focus on what I would do in that situation or how I would react,” Meyers Taylor said, adding that anything would be a “game-time decision.” “Maybe the social climate changes a little bit [before the Olympics]. … There’s a lot to consider.”

Aja Evans, a 2014 Olympic bobsled bronze medalist, the sister of former NFL defensive tackle Fred Evans, did not say that she would follow the football players’ lead.

“I honor and commend anyone that does that,” Evans said. “My way of showing my stance is to continue to try to be a positive influence for my city, for my country. I’m representing Team USA the best way I can.”

NCAA hockey players Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway, both prospective Olympians with the NHL not participating, said they didn’t envision taking a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I’ve always stood for the national anthem,” Greenway said. “I always will.”

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U.S. Olympic men’s hockey player from 2006 has shot at PyeongChang

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PARK CITY, Utah — Though no active NHL players will be in PyeongChang, veteran NHL forward and free agent Brian Gionta could very well play for his second U.S. Olympic team in February.

A USA Hockey official confirmed Monday that the 2006 Olympian Gionta “has a very decent opportunity” to be part of the 2018 Olympic team.

That came in response to a Buffalo radio report that Gionta said it’s looking good for him to play for Team USA.

Gionta, 38, played 15 NHL seasons through last year but is currently unsigned as the NHL preseason continues. The U.S. Olympic team of 25 players named around Jan. 1 is likely to include very few, if any, players with Gionta’s experience.

Gionta was seen at the Rochester (N.Y.) AHL club’s practice Monday (but not taking part), according to media in that area. Gionta could play for an AHL club and be eligible for PyeongChang. USA Hockey wants prospective Olympians to be active in the AHL, NCAA or a European league.

Gionta’s agent has not responded to a request for comment on his Olympic prospects on Monday. Earlier in the summer, Gionta’s agent said that the skater was considering the Olympics.

Gionta led the 2006 U.S. Olympic team with four goals. The Americans lost in the quarterfinals to Finland, their worst Olympic result over the last four Winter Games.

That came during Gionta’s most productive NHL season — 48 goals (sixth in the league) and 41 assists for the New Jersey Devils.

Another Olympian — Ryan Malone from 2010 — embarked on a comeback this preseason and could pursue the Olympics. He has been in camp with the Minnesota Wild. If he doesn’t make the Wild, Malone could play on an AHL contract and be eligible for the Olympics.

U.S. general manager Jim Johannson said this summer that he was interested in some players who “have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster.” Johannson wouldn’t name names then.

Johansson said a “long list” of potential players for the final 25-man roster must be submitted in September.

A U.S. team of primarily European-based players will take part in a tournament in November in Germany. That roster is expected to be named in October.

The U.S. staff will also look at NCAA and AHL players ahead of naming the PyeongChang team.

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