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Drive, family guide Kessel through historic season

by Tal Pinchevsky

Growing up with two future NHL draft picks as brothers, Amanda Kessel couldn't help but be competitive. More often than not, that meant her parents were stuck playing referee.

"Sometimes we would get banned from playing games," said Kessel, the 21-year-old junior wing with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. "Sometimes my mom would cry, 'I can't take you guys fighting anymore.' "

Fast forward a few years and the little sister is turning that passion into an NCAA season for the ages.

Kessel was 14 when her oldest brother, Phil, was drafted with the fifth pick by the Boston Bruins in the 2006 NHL Draft. The next year, her other brother, Blake, was taken in the sixth round by the New York Islanders. And after a standout career at powerhouse prep school Shattuck St. Mary's -- the same school whose alumni include Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Zach Parise -- Amanda barely missed a step when she arrived at Minnesota.

She made her mark last season, finishing third in the nation in scoring as a sophomore and leading the Gophers to their first national championship since 2005. But no one could have predicted the kind of junior year she's had so far.

"She's become a more complete player. Whereas she used to be known more as an offensive player, she's our best penalty killer, she's our best winger in the D zone," Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. "You add that to her offensive capabilities, and it makes for a historic season and a special player."

Amanda Kessel can become just the fourth player in women's college hockey history to score 100 points in a season.

In a season that saw Minnesota go undefeated entering this weekend's WCHA Final, Kessel was the star attraction. She led the nation in goals, assists and shorthanded goals despite missing three games. Her 94 points are the most since fellow Gopher Natalie Darwitz set the single-season record of 114 in 2004-05. And perhaps most impressive, she's done it with two freshmen serving as her linemates for much of the season.

Injury may have cost her a chance at Darwitz's record, but with the conference and national tournaments on the horizon, Kessel is within range of 100 points. It's a total that only three other players (Darwitz, Harvard's Jennifer Botterill and Minnesota's Krissy Wendell) have reached.

"I never thought that me or anyone would reach that mark in the time that we're in now with college hockey for women getting so competitive," Kessel told "Just looking at people's past records, it's usually around 80 that people top off."

In a family famous for being competitive, no matter the competition, Amanda was occasionally known for being merciless. Hockey, golf, soccer, cards -- she had to win. As a mite hockey player in Madison, WI, she was once tripped in a game before retaliating with a two-handed slash. It was only after meting out her brand of justice that she realized she had hacked her own teammate, who had tripped her by accident.

"The ref put his hand up and then noticed I hacked someone on my own team and put it back down," Kessel said. "I always had a little bit of a bad temper. A lot of the time it was from losing. We had soccer games in our basement and my dad would try to make them end in a tie. There was always someone throwing fits."

She's cooled that temper, but the competitive fire is still on display. This past week, she was named a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, the highest honor in NCAA women's hockey. And in a testament to the dominance of her Gophers team, she was nominated alongside two of her teammates, senior defenseman Megan Bozek and senior goaltender Noora Räty. It's the first team three teammates have been named finalists for the award.

With Minnesota looking to complete college hockey's first undefeated season since 1980, the spotlight is only getting brighter for Kessel. The Olympics are less than a year away and the women's career record of 303 points, set by Mercyhurst's Meghan Agosta, could potentially be in play. That's where it helps to have an older brother who has played in the NHL in Boston and Toronto, two of hockey's toughest fishbowls.

"I can't even imagine what Phil deals with. I give any professional player a lot of credit," Kessel said. "He's not someone to bring a lot of attention to himself. I think his approach is 'whatever comes your way, just be ready for it.' I'm not someone that loves the spotlight, I'm not someone who hates it."

Nearing the end of what could be among the NCAA's most historic seasons, she might have to get used to it regardless.

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