In an international ice rink there’s 26 meters — or a little over 85 feet — between center ice and the goal line. On Feb. 22, the eyes of the hockey world were locked on two such runways. On that day, 12 skaters and two goaltenders from Canada and the United States dueled in a shootout to decide which national team would bring home the most coveted reward in women’s hockey: Olympic gold.
It was the biggest game of Amanda Kessel’s life, a game that must have felt like an impossibility three years ago when Kessel believed she might never play hockey again. But four long years after suffering a life-changing concussion and bringing home silver in Sochi, she was right where she wanted to be.
As Team USA’s fourth shooter, Kessel had to follow Canada’s Mélodie Daoust, who had just made a showstopping deke to beat USA goalie Maddie Rooney. Mathematically, the Golden Gophers alumna didn’t have to score to keep USA’s gold medal dream alive. But everyone who was watching the game knew that USA needed a response after Daoust’s goal. Team USA needed Kessel to deliver. And she did.
It’s been five months since Kessel looked down from center ice at Shannon Szabados, but she remembers the moment almost perfectly.
“I went in — and I definitely did not think I was going to be shooting, let alone shooting glove side,” Kessel told The Ice Garden with a chuckle. “That was a split-second decision. At first I was thinking deke, and then, when I was halfway down, there was a rut — or I hit something — and I changed my mind.”
Deciding to shoot glove side against Shannon Szabados is a lot like deciding to challenge Megan Bozek to a hardest shot contest or Kendall Coyne to a race on skates. But when Kessel encountered an imperfection, she felt the need to improvise and turn to the quick release that had helped her score 108 goals in 138 career NCAA games at the University of Minnesota.
“I just got in so tight that it became a last-second decision to shoot it,” Kessel explained. With ice in her veins, Kessel snapped the puck past Szabados’ glove and into the top right corner of the net.
That clutch finish set the stage for Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson to score one of the most iconic goals in hockey history. Moments later, Rooney shut the door on Meghan Agosta, igniting Team USA’s celebration of its first Olympic gold medal in a generation.
Kessel, who turns 27 in August, achieved her dream by winning Olympic gold in February, but she’s not done with hockey just yet. Kessel re-signed with the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters on June 4. Will she be able to help the Riveters be the first team in NWHL history to repeat as champions? We’ll have our answer in about nine months.