Amanda Kessel finally ready for Olympic debut

Amanda Kessel
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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.

MORE: American barista lacing up for Swiss team

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.

MORE: US women’s hockey roster marked by youth

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.

Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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