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Penguins winger Kessel pulls for sister Amanda in her comeback from concussion

| Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, 8:15 p.m.
Minnesota's Amanda Kessel smiles after warming up before a game against North Dakota on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis. Kessel, a former Olympian and two-time All-America, was preparing to make her comeback to college hockey after missing the past two seasons, the second of them while recovering from a concussion she suffered during the Winter Olympics.

For more than a decade, Phil and Amanda Kessel's hockey careers kept them apart, in different cities and often unable to coordinate trips to their family's home in Wisconsin.

A concussion, one that nearly ended Amanda's time with the Minnesota Gophers on a sour, unfinished note, finally created the opportunity for the little sister and oldest of two brothers — Blake is the middle child — in one of the great American hockey families to spend time together.

Not even a chance for more shared time with siblings comes between a Kessel and on-ice competition, though.

After almost two years of struggling with concussion symptoms, 24-year-old Amanda returned to action Feb. 5 and registered two assists for the No. 3 Gophers in a 3-0 home win over No. 8 North Dakota. With the Penguins facing Tampa Bay that night, 28-year-old Phil followed from afar, relieved to see such a long period away from the game failed to stifle his sister's stardom.

“She's a big girl, but obviously, you worry,” Phil said. “It's been a long time since she played. She's been successful in her career, so it's good to see her back.”

In her first four games with the Gophers, Amanda tallied a goal and three assists. While she's in no position to claim multiple Player of the Year awards and lead the nation in scoring as she did with 101 points (46 goals, 55 assists) in 2012-13, she remains the kind of talent that will thrive in international play — as she did with Team USA in the 2014 Olympics — and possibly continue her career in the professional ranks with the newly formed National Women's Hockey League.

The outlook for Amanda appeared bleak last summer, when Minnesota coach Brad Frost said his star scorer was not well enough to rejoin the team. Symptoms from a concussion suffered while training with the U.S. National Team around the time of the 2014 Olympics, held in February of that year in Sochi, Russia, remained.

But before Phil headed to Pittsburgh in the Penguins' trade with Toronto on July 1, 2015, the family already had made trips here. Amanda visited to meet with UPMC's Michael Collins, one of the foremost experts on concussions.

“Once (Phil) was here and he had his home and everything, we'd stay with him,” said Phil Kessel Sr. “It's actually been a nice bonding experience over the last six months. They actually see each other again.

“During the hockey seasons for the last 12 years, they haven't seen a game (of each other's). This was the first year she actually got to come to some games because she wasn't playing. That was sort of nice. So they got a new bond established together. Now they text a little more. Talk a little more. Obviously, as an older brother, he's a little bit concerned about what was going on.”

Asked after Penguins practice Saturday if he considered any of his own injury experiences comparable to what his sister endured, the younger Phil shook his head.

“Not really,” he said.

He mentioned the left shoulder surgery he underwent in May 2009. That procedure kept him out of Toronto's lineup until early November.

He omitted his bout with testicular cancer during his rookie season in 2006. That surgery removed a small lump and eliminated the chance of the cancer spreading. He missed just 11 regular-season games with Boston. He received the league's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy that season as the player who best exemplified perseverance.

“Obviously I haven't been through what she's been through,” Phil said of Amanda. “I haven't had an injury like that. I think she handled it pretty well, and she's happy to be back.”

Once again, the brother and sister are bound to their hockey duties. Winters will come and go without much time together. But their father suspects there's now more awareness and availability between the siblings.

“He looks out for her,” said Phil Sr. “It's hard to be protective when you're not there. But he's interested and wants to know how she's doing. He's similar to me in saying, ‘Hey, you've got to tough it out and go play.' ”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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