When the news broke that Amanda Kessel had signed with the NWHL to play for the Riveters, hockey Twitter basically went berserk. Riveters fans who had mourned the loss of #1 pick Alex Carpenter to the already-powerful Pride suddenly had reason to believe again. Plus, Kessel is a marquee name, and the signing seemed like a good omen for the beleaguered league. The NWHL kindly arranged for the Player Sometimes Known as #BestKessel to answer some questions about New York, USA Hockey, and, yes, the NHL playoffs.
Kessel spoke to both women's leagues before choosing, but insisted that, for her, the decision was easy. "I just knew that I would like to play in the NWHL. Obviously being paid is nice, and it is an American league. It's awesome that we have a chance to actually be paid, and be called true professionals at our sport. That's something new, and I wanted an opportunity to be part of that."
Had Kessel had her pick of teams? Why the last-place Riveters? "I had a lot of good conversations with Chad (Wiseman, coach and GM). I really like his approach to the league and to the game. I can tell that he's a passionate guy ... He sacrifices a lot to coach and be a GM in this league."
Even for the league's highest-paid player at $26,000, the cost of living in New York had to be a concern. But Kessel, who did an internship in the city a few years ago, sounded excited about her new home. "I really love the city, she gushed. "The market's huge; it's a really exciting place to play hockey."
Still, Kessel isn't an intern any more. The sports world sends the message that women athletes should put money aside and live on their love of the game; Kessel, however, was refreshingly straightforward about financial concerns. She even negotiated her own deal in order to avoid paying an agent a share of her salary.
Nor did USA Hockey influence her decision, even though the national team is always on her mind. "If I want to be part of the national team and be in the next Olympics, (I've) got to be part of a competitive league. I think all the teams are going to be really competitive this year, it's going to be quite the challenge."
Kessel acknowledged that part of the draw of the NWHL was the opportunity to stay competive while getting back into national team form. "I'm only going to get better," she declared. The choice of league and team came down to "where the best spot would be for me to continue to get better as a player." While not currently on a USA roster, Kessel confirmed that her goal is to get back to camp, and hopefully to be part of the squad that travels to the next Olympics.
While most of the conversation looked toward the future, Kessel's fans haven't forgotten the concussion that sidelined her for over a year. Nor has she. However, asked if she was concerned about the physicality of the NWHL, she didn't hesitate. "Not one bit. I would never have gotten back into hockey if I wasn't 100% sure that I'd be healthy and have no concerns about my head."
Kessel confirmed that she and Wiseman had discussed the ways in which her game might shape the Riveters system. "We talked about having a really fast, good skating team. He likes to play an aggressive system and that's something I like as well. Being a quick player, I think I'll fit well into that system."
So far, she has spoken to Madison Packer and a few of her friends from the national team about life in the NWHL. Asked what they told her, Kessel was diplomatic, acknowledging that they mentioned "bumps in the road" of the league's first season, but asserting that "overall, I think they're all really happy with how it went."
Kessel seemed well-aware that NWHL's road continues to be bumpy, but she focused on her own future role. "I don't know specific details of what's going on; I think that's up to them to handle. As a player, it showed me that I need to support the league. It's a startup, so in the end it's going to be tough. Any startup doesn't really go smoothly. So I'm just here as a player to hopefully help in any way I can."
One way she might help is by bringing along her Minnesota teammate, Hannah Brandt.
Would be huge for the Rivs if they sign Kessel's teammate at Minny, Hannah Brandt. In 158 games, Brandt had 285 points (115g, 170a) #NWHL— Ryan Ohanesian (@ryanohan) May 1, 2016
Is that the plan? Kessel laughed: "I had a little bit of an idea about that. It would be fun to play with her at a different level ... (she's a ) really good friend of mine and an unbelievable player."
Some fans are hoping that Kessel will help by taking down the seemingly-unbeatable Pride. Can it be done? "It's going to be really challenging; their entire roster is filled with a lot of superstars. It will be quite the challenge, but it will be fun to play against them."
First, though, Kessel plans to get back to basics. "I'm excited to get in the weight room and get strong again," she declared, well-aware that her current enviable situation seemed "almost impossible" just a year ago.
She'll also be watching some hockey -- namely, her brother's Phil's Penguins. Amanda swore she had no clue what the #bestkessel tag meant. When told that her brother had deemed her the better player, she laughed, and seemed touched: "We give (feedback) back and forth to each other. We try to mostly be positive, but I like it because he'll actually ask for my opinion and I think he values it."
For the NWHL, Kessel's signing is more than "mostly positive." It's a badly-needed shot in the arm, and a signal to investors that, in spite of legal and financial worries, the league is still an attractive option for elite players. For the Riveters, it's a chance to be more than an underdog with a great logo. And for the fans, it's pretty much the answer to their prayers. We're still not sure where the team will play, but the ice is looking a lot more even.