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11 thoughts on Amanda Kessel returning to college hockey

Some stream of consciousness blogging on the number 8 sweater making her long-awaited return to Minnesota

North Dakota snapped Minnesota's 62 game unbeaten streak in November 2013, or seven months after Amanda Kessel has last played for the Gophers.
North Dakota snapped Minnesota's 62 game unbeaten streak in November 2013, or seven months after Amanda Kessel has last played for the Gophers.
Nathan Wells

There has been a lot to digest over the last 48 hours since news broke Wednesday that Amanda Kessel would be returning after a two year absence for the final six regular season games.

Here's an attempt to digest and break down the biggest piece of news to hit women's college hockey this season.

1. Shocked to see Kessel return.

I'll eat my words. I didn't think number eight was going to be anywhere near ready for the weekend. I assumed the only images of Kessel at Ridder would be the murals of her on each end of the ice. There were no hints Tuesday that she was close to being back, or if there were, head coach Brad Frost and Kessel's teammates kept it very close to the vest. It was always going to be a possibility as she was working out with the team and studying, but seeing Kessel around the rink a couple times told a different story of being near game shape.

Shows what happens when you assume. Anyone who had Maryanne Menefee as the lone player of the 2012-13 Kessel-Brandt-Menefee line in August would have been called a liar.

2. Credit goes to her for getting cleared and wanting to come back.

Amanda didn't have to return or play again this season. The easier path would have been to stay in school, skate with the team and go from there. The next Olympics are two years away. Instead, the day she was cleared was the day Minnesota officially added her to the roster.

There was no guarantee Kessel would return from post-concussion symptoms. She says as much in her statement.

I'm so happy to be playing hockey again. I'm not suffering from any concussion symptoms, and I've been evaluated by a number of physicians who have cleared me to play. I feel great, and I'm looking forward to being back on the ice with my teammates on game day.

Sometimes difficult things happen in life, and they only make you stronger. It was extremely challenging, but I did everything I could to get healthy. I'm grateful for everyone who helped and supported me throughout the difficult times. I wouldn't be in this position without them. I cannot wait to be back out there doing what I love to do while representing the University of Minnesota.

2a. How will she look? Will Kessel be the same player at 24 that she was at 21/22?

Two years away from competitive hockey is a long time.

3. Make no mistake, Kessel returning is a big deal for women's hockey

Perhaps no other player was promoted as much as the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award winner during the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. (Maybe Julie Chu was, but at worst Kessel was second.) Between her skill and name, the Gopher forward was being pushed as the next face of the sport. To lose that was a big blow coming out of the Olympics

4. In a way, it's remarkable to see how much has changed in women's hockey in the two years since Kessel last played.

5. Then again, this has been almost too big of a deal

Three of the biggest stories in women's college hockey this year have all been focused on Kessel - the news in July she would not play, the announcement she was around the team, and Wednesday - which is outstanding when you realize these are all about someone who had almost an entire class of players graduate since the last time she played college hockey.

Despite an exciting year on the ice, Kessel has stood above it all. That's sad. I'm not sure why - maybe part of it has to do with the NWHL beginning play - but this as little attention to college hockey as I can remember. Boston College is undefeated in February, Alex Carpenter is going for her second straight Patty Kazmaier award, UW goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens is having an all-time great year (her save percentage borders on an A+ and she has more shutouts than games where she has given up goals), Harvard has struggled, the gaps between the top and bottom of the WCHA have closed, etc. There has been a major struggle for teams and players to garner attention.

(We aren't even discussing the fact Ohio State's Jincy Dunne - the next face of USA Hockey after Kessel - has missed the season with reported concussion issues in the same way Kessel missed time, or concussion in women's hockey in general.)

Locally Friday night is easily the most attention that the Gophers have gotten since raising the national championship banner on opening night. Minnesota is the #3 team in the nation, the defending champions, features the top freshman (Sarah Potomak) and one of the most potent lines in the country (Potomak-Brandt-Dani Cameranesi) above others.

A Vice Sports writer made this point in an article whose point and article were essentially ignored. (Full disclosure: I am the SB Nation writer and one of four people right before a series between the #2 and #3 teams in the country.) The team's success is not as covered as much an individual story.

In fairness, the Gophers draw more fans than any other team in the nation. At the same time, I'm counting the days until everyone gets up in arms about the Frozen Four being streamed again when that news inevitably breaks like it does every year.

5a. To make a point: Did you know an Olympian scored an overtime winner last weekend for Minnesota?

The Gophers won a comeback thriller 2-1 in overtime with Lee Stecklein scoring, in her words Tuesday, her first ever OT winner.

6. North Dakota is going to a tough return given the physicality of the team

The Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry is a physical one going back to when the Lamoureux twins transferred from Minnesota back to their ancestral home in Grand Forks. Those games are a battle, as Frost said Tuesday. The series will be a good test for Minnesota, whose stretch run features UND, Minnesota Duluth and Wisconsin all in a row.

The newly christened Fighting Hawks are not afraid to be physical, stay back and sit on leads. That plan (3 quick goals and sit on it) worked to perfection for UND to break Minnesota's 62 game winning streak and North Dakota is one of two teams to defeat the Gophers this season.

Kessel is being thrown into the fire quickly.

7. Where does Kessel fit in? Lines have been set

As mentioned, the top line of Potomak-Brandt-Cameranesi has succeeded all year. Kelly Pannek and Cara Piazza have formed a crime fighting offensive duo on the second line along with Kate Schipper. Who get moved?

8. I still believe Minnesota is a better team with Kessel.

Any time a player that can be called "one of the best in the world" is an addition, it's hard to get worse. Depth is a virtue in college hockey.

It can also be gone in the blink of an eye. The Gophers found that out a couple weeks ago when Hannah Brandt and Taylor Williamson were both injured and there were only 10 healthy forwards.

9. Struggling to score

Another thing if you're a Minnesota fan is hoping Kessel still has her scoring touch, the one which knotted 46 goals in 41 games. After starting off with nearly a 6 goal per game average, the Gophers scored 5 in a two-game series against Minnesota State and only 4 in two wins against Bemidji last weekend.

Some credit has to be given to the defensive style both teams employed. Minnesota's 8 goals against BSU in one game back in November was an outlier. While Brandt and Frost noted it was good to get others scoring in last weekend's series (players like Piazza and Stecklein), having Kessel back might just be the spark needed to get more opportunities for other players.

10. The stretch run for the Gophers trying to defend the title and overtake Wisconsin

Stecklein said Tuesday that the team was not where it needs to be to defend the title, but ramping up and working towards it. The final six games are a perfect opportunity to build towards defending the national title and trying to overtake Wisconsin for the WCHA regular season crown.

11. What does Kessel's future entail?

One conversation I had when the news broke was why Kessel didn't turn pro. There are two leagues that would love to have had her and a local post-collegiate team in the Minnesota Whitecaps where the best Midwest players suit up after college.

Unfortunately at this point the Whitecaps only have a single game and it is against Shattuck. Having at least 8 games is a better path, but I do wonder what is next after the season.

One for the road. This goes for some of the other Minnesotans like Brandt given the nature of pro women's hockey

I'm also curious to see if more graduating Gophers like Kessel or Brandt or Milica McMillen or Amanda Leveille, or Midwest players in general, go East to play after college. That hasn't been something which has historically happened. Of the 72 players in the inaugural New England-based NWHL, only four are from Minnesota (a state that produces nearly twice as many D1 players as the next-highest). The only WCHA alums are with a couple exceptions from the East Coast or Olympians. The CWHL is similar, but replace New Englanders with Canadians.

Given the fact it sounds like both leagues are going to use the Minnesota market as its Los Angeles, leaves Minnesota and Midwest players without a league and an on and off schedule with the Whitecaps. Does this change after this season?


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --