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It was six years ago, during the inaugural women’s under-18 championship in Calgary, when Amanda Kessel spilled the beans.
How was it an American family headed by a former professional football quarterback – Phil Kessel Sr., a former Washington Redskins draft choice and briefly a member of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders – ended up with hockey-playing children?
According to Amanda, it had a lot to do with trying to emulate David Moss (now with the Phoenix Coyotes).
Moss was the cool older cousin who played hockey and, according to Amanda, “my brothers [Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil and Blake, a defenceman in the AHL] and I just followed in his footsteps. I was born into it. From the time I was 3, I had skates on – because my brothers were all playing.”
Amanda, 22, and Phil, 26, are here in the same place, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics – if not necessarily together a lot – both competing for gold medals.
Phil is tearing up the tournament on the men’s side, leading the United States in scoring with eight points going into Friday’s semi-final against Canada.
Amanda, meanwhile, is atop the women’s scoring charts with six points, and will play Canada on Thursday – with the Olympic championship on the line.
“Crazy to think that the gold-medal game is tomorrow,” Amanda tweeted Wednesday. “A lifetime of work about to be poured into a 60-minute game.”
Amanda Kessel is in the conversation for best female player in the world, and, after years of having his game examined microscopically for flaws, the view of Phil Kessel is changing. (He might not be in the same conversation as Canadian stars Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews for most-complete player, but it is hard to find anyone more dynamic at these Olympics.)
The one quality they share: In a tournament that has lacked for highlight-reel moments, both are capable of lifting fans out of the seats with spectacular individual plays.
According to Moss, that stems in part from his cousins’ competitive natures.
“Growing up with Phil and Amanda was a lot of fun when we were kids,” the 32-year-old said via e-mail. But what stood out to him was how they “were always competing. Whether it was mini-sticks, baseball, golf or a game of cards, it was always intense.
“The truth is, Amanda and Phil would have been successful in whatever sport they chose, that’s how athletic they are.”
U.S. teammate David Backes expressed a similar sentiment after Phil scored three goals in last Saturday’s win over Slovenia.
“He’s definitely got a special ability, and that’s why he’s got 30 goals in the NHL already [31 in 60 games this season] and that’s why he’s able to score like he did,” Backes said. “He’s always around the puck, he’s got great timing to arrive right when it does, and his finish is great as well.”
Also, Backes has detected a difference in Phil within the context of the Team USA dressing room – where all the key elements of the 2010 Olympic silver medal team are four years older and far more mature as players.
“Everyone’s really had a lot of growth in their personal lives and in the poise they’re showing on the ice, and he’s no exception,” Backes said. “He’s a guy that’s grown as a person and shown on the ice that he can handle big-time situations. He’s a player that’s out there and making plays all the time.”
The Kessel siblings haven’t seen each other much in person in Sochi, but they have watched each other’s games.
Phil called his younger sister “a great hockey player and, obviously, she’s doing pretty well so far. Good for her.”
Amanda was a little chattier, calling Phil’s performance against Slovenia “awesome,” describing him as “an inspiration to me” and noting: “He’s my favourite player.”
What if both happen to end up in the winner’s circle this week?
“There is definitely room for two gold medals in the family,” Amanda said.
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